Mechanical typewriters may be a thing of the past, but the art world has found varied alternative uses for the antiquated devices. We've seen an artist recreate famous paintings by using only the characters found on a keyboard. We've also seen more experimental approaches like typewriters being taken apart and reassembled into movable bird sculptures. Now, this vintage tool is being utilized beyond visual arts. A band known as Boston Typewriter Orchestra creates songs using these antique machines as musical instruments.
The band recorded the song “Left Blank” on video and submitted it to the NPR Tiny Desk Contest. “We only do desk concerts. C'mon, this is a no-brainer,” they wrote in the video description. Although they didn't win, they've surely made an impression with their experimental sound. According to their Bandcamp page, Boston Typewriter Orchestra describes itself as “a collective endeavor which engages in rhythmic typewriter manipulation combined with elements of performance, comedy, and satire.” The outcome is a hair-raising industrial sound that might as well soundtrack a workplace thriller like Severance.
So, how does this collective use typewriters as musical instruments? While the sounds of typing may seem monotone, the band knows how to exploit the physicality of their tools. In fact, the inner mechanisms of the machines almost double as a bass, while their strong typing becomes a percussion that takes center stage. The result is something that any metal band would be jealous of. At some point, one of them even drops the machine on the table for a stronger drum sound. Besides the typewriters’ noises, their music is only aided by the sound of service bells.
While their song undoubtedly has an experimental sound to it, there are also words. It’s at the 1:16 mark that a spoken word bit comes along, at which point the musicians unite as an eerily robotic chorus to scream, “Wait! Uhm, no, this makes no sense. This page intentionally left blank.” The uncanny effect brilliantly adds to the scene. It speaks to the hundreds of desk workers who, once they clock out, make their way to the metal and punk clubs of the world. These guys simply knew how to marry the two.