Keyed up – Alison Healy on the Boston Typewriter Orchestra

The music of Qwerty

Two sounds remind me of the Covid-19 lockdown. First there was the joyous birdsong that came after the birds discovered they had the skies to themselves. Remember how they lost the run of themselves entirely with their tweeting and warbling? And then there was the clickety-clack of a manual typewriter.

Confined to a 2km radius and craving the sounds of the outside world, I had turned to the internet and discovered YouTube videos with every sound imaginable. Want to hear the hum of chat in a café? There’s a YouTube video for that, complete with the hiss of a coffee machine in the background. Or imagine yourself in a crowded bar when you listen to the clinking of glasses and the sound of laughter. And why not take your ears to the airport and listen to the muffled Tannoy announcements and the rumble of wheelie bags rolling through the terminal.

Feeling nostalgic for office sounds, I stumbled into the wrong decade and found myself listening to the industrial march of a battalion of typewriters. The typing sounds were sprinkled with the occasional ding, warning the end of the line was approaching.

Of course, the end of the line did approach for typewriters and if you look for sound effects of a modern office all you can hear is the low murmur of chatter, interspersed with the muffled ring of a phone. But if you still yearn for the thrum of typewriters, then the existence of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra will be music to your ears. The group was formed 20 years ago to entertain the masses of Massachusetts, and further afield, by making music from manual typewriters. During their concerts, the orchestra members sit in a row, bedecked in their office shirts and ties, and batter out insistent rhythms with titles such as At the Staff Meeting, and Mail Guy. All that typewriter tapping, dinging and carriage-returning combine to form tunes that make you want to stomp your feet.

Derrik Albertelli, who is reportedly the only formally trained concert typist in the orchestra, explains that it all started when orchestra founder Tim Devin came into possession of a child’s typewriter. He was toying with it in a bar and drew the attention of a waiter who suggested he put a lid on it. It’s difficult to speak with authority when you are playing with a child’s typewriter, but he drew himself up to his full height and solemnly declared that he was the conductor of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.

And then of course, the orchestra simply had to be formed, and the rest is history. Tim is also history with the orchestra as he has since hung up his typewriter. According to the orchestra’s website, he now lives a life of luxury supported by his millions in orchestra stock options, but Derrik advises that not everything is 100 per cent true on that website.

But it is true that the group’s members include crossword celebrity Brendan Emmett Quigley who has constructed crosswords for outlets such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He was also a musician in a past life but says it was really hard to make money from it, so he got into the highly lucrative business of constructing crosswords. He gives a wry laugh when he says this, so if you harbour dreams of becoming a millionaire crossword compiler perhaps put that plan on ice.

Brendan and his fellow orchestra members hammer the typewriter keys with a vigour that would appal vintage typewriter collectors. It’s just as well the performers won’t get their hands on one particular typewriter in Boston. It belonged to the man with more aliases than Prince and P Diddy combined – Brian O’Nolan. Nestling in the Flann O’Brien collection in the Burns library in Boston College is his trusty Underwood 3-14 typewriter. His brother Micheál Ó Nualláin highlighted the machine in an article he wrote for this newspaper in 1986 on the 20th anniversary of his brother’s death.

He told how the week’s output for Myles na gCopaleen’s Cruiskeen Lawn column would be pounded out in the dining room of their Dublin home on a Sunday afternoon. But first, Brian would consult some scraps of paper in his pocket. “Then the firing would start. He would hammer in continuous and sustained, machine-gun-like bursts,” his brother wrote. “To make it worse, the entire table acted as a baffle board and vibrated. The molecules danced to the tune of his typewriter. Nature of tune: Fortissimo.” He was a one-man band, drawing music from the Underwood typewriter long before the Boston Typewriter Orchestra had been dreamed of.

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