While other music groups may opt for little-known folk instruments or vintage Baroque violins, the Boston Typewriter Orchestra (BTO) adds a distinctive flavor to the colorful Boston soundscape with the use of manual typewriters and vocal talent.
According to executive typist Derrik Abertelli, the group’s endeavors are “partly musical and partly theatrical”. Influenced by artists such as Brian Eno and 1980s German industrial percussionists Einstƒ¼rzende Neubauten, BTO has taken the idea of unique percussion and turned it into a full-blown orchestra of typewriters and other office instruments like telephones.
The orchestra itself was a product of a witty quip, members say. In October 2004, founder Tim Devin’s girlfriend presented him with a children’s typewriter one night at a bar. With delight, he began typing along to the rhythm of the music being played. When the annoyed waitress demanded he stop, his joking response was, “It’s okay, ma’am; I’m the conductor for the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.”
Inspired by this retort, he later gathered a group to create their own music on typewriters, playing at small house parties. Thanks to the Somerville Art Beat festival in 2006 and coverage in the Boston Globe, the BTO’s scope of performances has expanded.
Not only does the seven-person group continue to play in small art galleries, they have also opened for Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls and appeared on the Today show, Fox & Friends, and other local media. On average, they appear every other month in various locales to positive audience turnout, according to member Jay O’Grady.
“I continued to be pleasantly surprised by the audience feedback,” he said, citing a recent outdoor show at Art Beat in Davis square that drew more than 400 people.
The two- or three- hour-long weekly practices allow members to create new songs or adapt previously written ones. All of the members have their own typewriters, thanks to audience donations and thrift store purchases.
“We like to exploit as many unique sounds as possible,” Abertelli added. “When new material is introduced we each try to develop and add to it in our own ways. It’s a pretty democratic process.”
Rehearsals certainly pay off. BTO’s appeal covers a broad spectrum of age and personality. “Older fans regard us nostalgically while younger fans appreciate the oddity,” Abertelli said.
O’Grady points out that the group seems to appeal to, “librarians, luddites, and literati” alike.‚ “People appreciate the audacity in what we do,” he said. “It’s not just some guy with a laptop.”
The unusual nature of BTO’s performance often yields interesting responses. Despite occasional problems, such as sound troubles in larger venues, mechanical problems with the instruments, or the anguish of lugging heavy typewriters long distances, “nothing beats” performing for an enthusiastic crowd, according to Abertelli.
“During times of self-doubt … I’ll say to myself, ‘What am I doing? This is so silly!’,” he said. “But when I find out that people are really into it, I’m more excited about the project.”
BTO will be performing at Whitehaus on January 10. The show is free ‚ but donations are always accepted, and most of their CD recordings are available at the live venue or online.