CLOSE
Original image
Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Jamming with the Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Original image
Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Talking typewriters with the members of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra is like asking for a recommendation on a good Gibson guitar from Eric Clapton.

“The portable Remingtons, they have quicker key strikes, with a higher tenor note to them,” Brendan Emmett Quigley, a professional crossword puzzle maker and part-time musician, tells mental_floss. “A Smith-Corona Galaxy 12 has a power space function that makes a nice metallic clang sound.”

“Some don’t make enough noise,” adds member Jeff Breeze.

“Alex [Holman, a fellow member] is a pro at breaking them,” Quigley says. “He’ll hammer actual type on the type bar. There will be metal shears spiraling off onto the desk.”

The potential for protective eyewear is part of the deal for members of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, or BTO, a Boston-based musical group that summons the distinctive chirping noise of old manual typewriters to create catchy rhythms. Like something out of a 1940s montage on secretarial labor, the percussive clicking at one of their shows starts out haphazardly before slipping into sync. Melodies like “The Revolution Will Be Typewritten” and “Entropy Begins at the Office” are hammered out until some of them begin bleeding from their fingertips.

“It’s kind of like our own little fight club,” Brendan says. “You’ll see friends or colleagues and say, ‘You know, you should be part of this.’ And a certain type of person will go, ‘I need to be part of that.’”

 
Founded in late 2004, the origins of the BTO began in a diner. An artist named Tim Devin was drinking and was also in possession of a portable typewriter, which he began pecking at. When a waitress asked what he was doing, and possibly asking him to stop doing it, Devin replied that she shouldn’t worry: He was the conductor of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.

Along with some friends, Devin took the joke and began to take it vaguely seriously, rehearsing with old manual typewriters and getting a feel for their musical abilities at private functions before officially debuting at the Art Beat festival in Boston in 2006.

“We played a little theater but wound up filling it up so it was standing room only,” Quigley says. From there, a rotating cast has performed between four and seven shows annually in and around New England, typically breaking up their sets with an irreverent “office” setting that both mocks and sympathizes with corporate culture.

“We’re sort of pulling from the collective unconscious about bad office jobs and office politics,” Alex Holman says. “It’s sort of an inscrutable performance.”

Word of mouth books most gigs for the Orchestra, which has appeared on National Public Radio and opened for musician Amanda Palmer in between gigs at poetry readings, libraries and clubs. (Quigley says they turned down a gig in Mumbai over a disagreement over travel expenses, but it’s not clear whether he’s serious.) “People hear about it and go, ‘We need to have this at our event,’” he says. Sometimes writing groups or typing-related functions invite them without realizing they really don’t write anything on the typewriters.

“We used paper early on but just got gobbeldygook,” Quigley says of the typed result of their jams. “Generally speaking, there’s no sound difference, so we stopped.”

 
Rehearsals are on Wednesdays. A two-hour practice might be “half beer drinking,” Holman says, and half actual composition. Attendance depends on whether any of the eight current members have other responsibilities. (Among their number: a librarian, an AIDS researcher, and a mortgage broker.) Some tunes have a spoken-word frame, while a few others contain vocals. “It’s a lot of taking a 10 to 15 minute-long groove and cherry-picking parts to make a performable song,” Holman says.

The group will perform next on December 21 at the ONCE Ballroom in Somerville, Massachusetts and is preparing to release their third album and first on vinyl, Termination without Prejudice, Volume 1, after a successful Kickstarter campaign. One new track, "Harold," will feature Holman on "lead roller bar."

“We know we’re a niche thing and we’re happy with that,” Quigley says. “I don’t think any of us could handle overnight success.”

Original image
Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Art
6 Great (and Not-So-Great) Works of Art Made by Robots
Original image
Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/AFP/Getty Images

Cold, calculating, unfeeling—none of the stereotypes associated with robots seem to describe makers of great art. But that hasn’t stopped roboticists from trying to engineer the next Picasso in a lab. Some machines and algorithms are capable of crafting works impressive enough to fool even the toughest critics. As for the rest of the robot artists and writers out there, let’s just say they won’t have creative types fearing for their jobs anytime soon. 

1. A BEATLES-ESQUE POP SONG

If you heard the song above at a party or in a crowded store, you might assume it’s just a generic pop tune. But if you listened closer, you’d hear the dissonant vocals and nonsense lyrics that place this number in the sonic equivalent of the uncanny valley. “Daddy’s Car” was composed by an artificial intelligence system from the Sony CSL Research Laboratory. After analyzing sheet music from a variety of artists and genres, the AI generated the words, harmony, and melody for the song. A human composer chose the style (1960s Beatles-style pop) and did the producing and mixing, but other than that the music is all machine. It may not have topped the pop charts, but the song did give us the genius lyric: “Down on the ground, the rainbow led me to the sun.”

2. A NOVEL THAT MADE IT PAST THE FIRST ROUND OF A FICTION CONTEST

Will the next War and Peace be written by a complex computer algorithm? Probably not, but that isn’t to say that AI can’t compose some serviceable fiction with help from human minds. In 2016, a team of Japanese researchers invented a program and fed it the plot, characters, and general structure of an original story. They also wrote sentences for the system to choose from, so the content of the novel relied heavily on humans. But the final product and the work required to string the components together was made possible by AI. The researchers submitted the story to Japan's Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Contest where it made it past the first round of judging. Though one notable Japanese author praised the novel for its structure, he also said there were some character description issues holding it back.

3. A 'NEW' REMBRANDT PAINTING

Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/AFP/Getty Images

In 2016, a 3D printer did something extraordinary: It produced a brand new painting in the spirit of a long-dead artist. The piece, titled “The Next Rembrandt,” would fit right in at an exhibition of art from the 17th-century Dutch painter. But this work is entirely modern. Bas Korsten, creative director at the Amsterdam-based advertising firm J. Walter Thompson, had a computer program analyze 346 Rembrandt paintings over 18 months. Every element of the final image, from the age of the subject and the color of his clothes to the physical brushstrokes, is reminiscent of the artist’s distinct style. But while it’s good enough to fool the amateur art fan, it failed to hold up under scruntiny from Rembrandt experts.

4. DREARY LOVE POETRY

What do you get when you dump thousands of unpublished romance novels into an AI system? Some incredibly bleak poetry, as Google discovered in 2016. The purpose of the neural network was to connect two separate sentences from a book into one whole thought. The result gave us such existential gems as this excerpt:

"there is no one else in the world.
there is no one else in sight.
they were the only ones who mattered.
they were the only ones left.
he had to be with me.
she had to be with him.
i had to do this.
i wanted to kill him.
i started to cry."

To be fair, the algorithm was designed to construct natural-sounding sentences rather than write great verse. But that doesn’t stop the passages from sounding oddly poetic.

5. A CREEPY CHRISTMAS SONG

Christmas songs rely heavily on formulas and cliches, aka ideal neural network fodder. So you’d think that an AI program would be capable of whipping up a fairly decent holiday tune, but a project from the University of Toronto proved this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Their algorithm was prompted to compose the song above based on a digital image of a Christmas tree. From there it somehow came up with trippy lyrics like, “I’ve always been there for the rest of our lives.”

6. A CROWDSOURCED ABSTRACT PAINTING

Art made by a robot.
Instapainter

The image above was painted by the mechanical arm of a robot, but naming the true artist of the piece gets complicated. That’s because the robotic painter was controlled by multiple users on the internet. In 2015, the commissioned art service Instapainting invited the online community at Twitch to crowdsource a painting. The robot, following script commands over a 36-hour period, produced what looks like graffiti-inspired abstract art. More impressive than the painting itself was the fact that the machine was able to paint it at all. Instapainting founder Chris Chen told artnet, “It was a $250 machine slapped together with quickly written software, so running it for that long was an endurance test.”

Original image
Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
11 Surprising Facts About Kidz Bop
Original image
Getty Images

If you have kids, they've likely forced Kidz Bop upon you. And if you don’t have kids, you’ve almost certainly seen the commercials and wondered who in their right minds would willingly listen to children singing sanitized, high-pitched versions of pop songs ranging from "Uptown Funk" to "Bad Blood." But there's more to Kidz Bop than meets the ear—here's what you don't know.

1. THE COMPANY STARTED BY SELLING OLDIES COMPILATION ALBUMS.

Cliff Chenfeld and Craig Balsam, the men who launched Kidz Bop, started their first music company out of Chenfeld’s apartment in 1990. Their big idea? Compilation albums. They started with "Those Fabulous ‘70s," a record of hits from the likes of the Partridge Family, the Bay City Rollers, and Starlight Vocal Band. (You may remember seeing the kitschy infomercial above.) "Monster Ballads" was another big hit for Chenfeld and Balsam, with more than 3 million copies sold.

2. THE IDEA FOR KIDZ BOP CAME A DECADE LATER.

Nearly 10 years later, both founders had families, and they noticed a void in the music offerings available for children too old for Barney but too young for Britney Spears. So they hired some kids to sing 20 songs, cut a record, then marketed the crap out of it. Investing in TV commercials paid off: The first Kidz Bop album sold 800,000 units—and it wasn't even available in stores.

3. THE KIDZ BOP KIDS HAVE HAD MORE TOP 10 HITS THAN MADONNA.

The 22 albums that have hit the Billboard Top 10 make the Kidz Bop Kids more successful than Madonna and Bob Dylan (who have had 21 albums each) and Elton John and Bruce Springsteen (who have 18 albums each).

4. “THE KIDZ BOP KIDS” HAVE EVOLVED.

The “Kidz Bop Kids” were originally just a variety of anonymous singers, likely low-cost talent as the company was finding its footing. These days, several talented tweens are chosen to be the Kidz Bop Kids every few years (Jezebel refers to it as the "Menudo Model"); they’re marketed as full-blown personalities, even being likened to this generation’s Mouseketeers.

5. ZENDAYA IS AN ALUMNA.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The singer-actress-model-designer was a member in 2009, along with fellow future Disney Channel star and boy band member Ross Lynch. Other Kidz Bop successes include singer-actress Becky G and actress Spencer Locke.

6. THERE HAVE BEEN CONTROVERSIAL LYRIC CHANGES.

Even though the whole point of Kidz Bop is to be inoffensive, sometimes the fact that certain lyrics are deemed “offensive” is offensive in and of itself. For example, when Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was rewritten to exclude words like “gay,” “lesbian,” “transgendered,” and “bi,” people took note.

7. LAST-MINUTE ADDITIONS TO THE ALBUM AREN'T UNCOMMON.

To take advantage of the most current chart-toppers, Kidz Bop albums currently come out at the rate of four per year, up from the previous schedule of two per year. The quick turn means it's not unheard of for albums to be nearly complete when a song unexpectedly takes off, causing producers to scramble to get it included. That was the case with "The Fox" by Ylvis, which was rushed onto the Kidz Bop 25 album just days before it was manufactured.

8. THEY DRAW THE LINE AT CERTAIN SONGS.

Though the company is able to change most suggestive lyrics into words that are more kid-friendly—sometimes to hilarious effect—there are some songs that just won’t work. One of them: "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke. “There’s no way we can do a song like ‘Blurred Lines’—it’s just too suggestive,” COO Victor Zaraya said.

9. THE MAJORITY OF THEIR SALES ARE PHYSICAL CDS, WHICH IS UNUSUAL.

In an industry where sales are increasingly moving to the digital realm—CD sales have hit a record low, in fact—the majority of Kidz Bop sales are still physical copies. Zaraya says that's due to the extras they offer with each purchase—like stickers and magnets. "There's a tangibility," he says. "Parents want to be able to put something in their kid's hands."

10. THERE’S A LOGICAL EXPLANATION BEHIND THE “Z” IN “KIDZ BOP.”

The “z” in Kidz Bop isn’t there just to be edgy—it’s there because the alternate spelling made it easier to trademark.

11. THEY'RE NOW IN THE ORIGINAL SONGS BUSINESS.

The gang did their first-ever original song on Kidz Bop 30 in 2015, a spunky little ditty called "Make Some Noise." They even shot a video for it:

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios