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Type Cast

Type CastWhen he's not studying, Alex Holman, a doctoral student at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts, is busy making music with the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.16.07] Apparently the first person to use the manual typewriter as a musical instrument was American composer Leroy Anderson, who featured the clackety, dinging office machine in a piece he wrote back in 1950. The Boston Typewriter Orchestra, a five-member ensemble of graduate students and their pals, is building on what they call that "cheerful and enjoyable" historic moment and carrying its promise forward through their antic performances of keyboard syncopation.

The birth of the BTO came a couple of years ago in a barroom. Tim, one of the original members, was idly tapping out a rhythm on a kid's typewriter in time to some tune playing on the radio. When a waitress asked him to desist, he replied that it was OK because he was, after all, the conductor of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra. His improvised claim soon became the level truth.

Multimedia Feature:


Alex Holman discusses his involvement with the BTO.


Alex Holman, 27, a doctoral student in genetics at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, signed on about a year ago. He is plainly a natural at it. Asked to describe his favorite instrument of the 15 or 20 vintage machines that the BTO keeps on hand-typewriters generally found after being discarded somewhere along the road-he replies, "I do like that Underwood Five model. They have a good, solid bass sound to them." Other typewriters in the collection tend to ring more in an alto or tenor range, says Holman, a pony-tailed young man with flashing dark eyes and energy to burn.

Picture a half-dozen 20-something guys seated around a table, dressed in shirts and ties and whaling away at their machines, with rhythmic patterns repeating like the drumming of fingers on a countertop, and you have the heart of a BTO performance. (For more, see The band has seven or eight original compositions that they play, in the process creating a droll tableau of pre-1965 office productivity. It's the Marx Brothers on company time. The group has performed at street fairs in Worcester and Somerville and at a handful of clubs around Boston, in addition to an appearance on Fox News.

What does the group sound like? If their CD, The Revolution Will Be Typewritten, is any clue, they sound like a tap dance, like car keys tossed on a table or like an ice cream truck crossed with machine-gun fire.




This text originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Tufts Medicine.


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