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IBM Selectric transformed into musical instrument

by Amy Kingsley

To enter the space in which performance group Invisible will be unveiling its signature creation, you must first navigate a long gravel drive (unmarked), thread your way through a room filled with power tools and traverse a small studio crowded with dusty instruments. In the end you cross a wide threshold usually plugged by a thick swinging door into a windowless space with Styrofoam walls and decaying ceiling tiles.

At the far end of this inner sanctum sits a typewriter – an IBM Selectric tethered by wires to a wooden contraption the size of a loom. On the opposite side of the typewriter are 88 delicate plungers poised over the same number of piano keys.Towards this set piece walks Jodi Staley; she takes her place at the typewriter, dons a pair of headphones and straightens her spine. It’s a familiar posture for Staley, a typist by trade.

But on this night, the context is different. Instead of churning out legal documents, Staley and her typewriter will be making music.

Vocalist Mark Dixon raises a prepared script, and accompanied by upright bass, drums and keys, the ensemble embarks on an upbeat, jazzy number. His backing band consists of drummer Bart Trotman, bass player Jonathan Henderson, Dan Kaufman on keyboards, and, most importantly, Staley.”This machine is the reason why we put this show together,” Dixon says between songs.

Staley may have been the inspiration, but Dixon is the mastermind, having originally envisioned the instrument after hearing Staley, his roommate, work in her bedroom.

“I was listening to her type,” he said. “And I thought she’s on the wrong machine.”The journey from idea to execution lasted four months and ultimately became a collaboration between Dixon, his neighbor Fred Snider and Invisible’s upright bass player Jonathan Henderson.Snider, a geologist who dabbles in computers and electronics, helped rig the typewriter with photoelectric sensors that would transmit discrete signals for each character on the keyboard. A circuit board shaded with a mass of colored wires translates the pulses into plunger movement, triggering the piano’s familiar musical engineering.

“We had 88 individual signals from the typewriter and 88 keys on a piano,” Snider says. “So how do we decide which key goes to which note? We took terminal blocks from speakers and hooked them up to the actual activators. We can change it around if we want.”

Henderson contributed his knowledge of music theory – he matched the most frequently typed characters in the English language to the most common notes and octaves in the Western scale.Invisible used the instrument during each song in its set. The first bounces like a Belle & Sebastian B-side. Dixon referred to the infinite monkey theorem and dictated phrases for Staley’s transcription. Words like “double,” “dribble” and “forever” made lovely music, the notes linked like charms on a bracelet.

“I live in a house full of musicians,” Dixon says. “And Jodi is sort of an exception to that. So she sort of had this musicianship crush.”Creation of the typewriter-piano machine brought Staley into the fold. But the group soon discovered that she needed to modify her technique to transform typing into music.

“When you’re just typing text, it turns into a mash of notes,” Dixon says. “So Jodi had to slow down and feel the spaces. In the end she had to become a musician after all.”

Before they ended the set with an extra spastic version of the Talking Heads’ already erratic “Once in a Lifetime,” Invisible played a musical game of 20 questions. Dixon would ask a question, to which Staley and the rest of the band responded. A small camera pointed toward Staley’s typewriter fed projected images of the words onto a screen.Dixon eventually guessed the answer, but for the benefit of those who were not there, I’m not going to divulge it. Find out the answer for yourself on June 2 when Invisible will be playing a benefit at Two Art Chicks. It’s pretty easy to find, right on Elm Street, a paved road with no power tools in sight.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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