A thrumming rhythm fills the room. Six men and one woman sit across from each other at two tables. A syncopated beat builds slowly. A space bar clicking. A call bell dinging. The even tap, tap, tap, of a hand keeping time.
The group sways to the sound, a hum of clicking keys and shifting carriage returns, brows furrowed as they bang intently on their old-fashioned machines. A symphony of typewriters.
That’s right, typewriters. It’s the offbeat instrument of choice for the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, who navigate the keyboards with the ease of a piano or a guitar. It’s been nearly two decades, but they continue to perform across the state; their next stop is The Foundry in West Stockbridge on June 10.
“It’s one of those things where it was a silly idea that managed to get traction, and you know, now we’re pretty deep into it,” said Chris Keene, 52, software engineer by day, musical typist by night.
The septet is self-aware. Ranging in age from 44 to 63, they know it appears as if they’ve emerged from office cubicles, wearing white-collared shirts and bright-patterned ties at each performance. A healthy dose of satire, which they call “office banter,” adds to the effect.
“Bring your pens and notebooks down at the staff meeting,” Jay O’Grady, 63, sings mid-song. (“At the staff meeting,” the ensemble recites back.)
It’s intended as a cheeky send-up of ‘50s office culture, and they’re hoping it makes you laugh.
“There’s something inherently ridiculous about playing a typewriter,” Keene said. “And if you don’t ridicule yourselves and get out in front, someone else is going to ridicule you.”
The band can be traced back to 2004. It’s become BTO lore: Former member Tim Devin pattered away on a typewriter at a bar. When a waiter asked him to stop, he proudly declared that he was the conductor of a nonexistent orchestra. From an offhand remark, a band was born.
Now, nearly every Wednesday night, the group gathers in the third-floor of O’Grady’s house in East Boston to rehearse — along with a plentiful supply of beer.
“I started out with it because I like typewriters and mechanical stuff, and I thought it was weird and twitchy and musical,” said biologist Alex Holman, 44. “It ended up being a drinking club with a typewriter problem.”
Usually, they perform once a month, appearing at museums, festivals, and private events — even “The Kelly Clarkson Show.”
How much music can you make with typewriters? You might be surprised. In their rehearsal space, a small whiteboard hangs on the wall, featuring a repertoire of about a dozen songs. One member proposes an arrangement to practice, and within a few seconds, they’re clicking away in a synchronized riff. There’s no sheet music — it’s all by memory.
“We sketch stuff,” said librarian Derrik Albertelli, 45,. “We try to write stuff down when we need to communicate an idea, but eventually it just becomes a mental thing.”
The arrangements are limited to the sounds of an office: typewriters, call bells, and hands striking the table.
Even typewriter tunes can be classified with genres, O’Grady added. There are heavy metal songs, where each machine takes a beating. There are country songs, which are slower, melodic, as the ensemble sings along with a Southern twang.
“I just wanted to write a sad country song,” said O’Grady, a loan analyst. “But, you know, on a typewriter.”
On a recent Wednesday night, the band weighed their set list ahead of an upcoming gig. In one song, the ensemble began with a steady rhythm before splitting into two clashing time signatures at once. The discordant beat builds into a synchronous melody.
Midway through the song, they stop. They’ve lost the count.
“It may be beyond our capability,” Keene said. “But we’ve done it. It’s on video.”
The video was recorded as a submission for National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Concert contest in February. Their music is particularly conducive to NPR’s set-up, they said, but they never heard back.
“We only play desk concerts,” said educator James Brockman, 45, with a laugh.
Their rehearsal space — a quaint room with yellow walls and weathered wood floors — has been a designated musical office for more than a decade. Adjacent to a makeshift stage is a trove of typewriter cases, piled on top of miscellaneous furniture.
The group estimates that they own dozens of the machines. Some antique, others more modern, but all with a single purpose: to make music. Their collection has prompted a mixed response from the typewriter community, O’Grady said.
“People nowadays are collecting typewriters,” O’Grady said as his fingers danced across the keys. “So some of them don’t like us because we tend to, you know, destroy them.”
Between songs, they laugh and chatter about their lives. Their careers range from engineers, to archivists, to puzzle writers, yet here the diverse ensemble finds common ground.
That connection keeps the music going, they said. What’s next after four albums and a Spotify profile? It’s not clear. Keene dreams of bigger performance venues: the Montréal International Jazz Festival, perhaps. The Zappanale music festival in Germany.
But make no mistake: The Boston Typewriter Orchestra is here to stay.
“I just love these old machines,” Keene said. “We all do.”