Beverly Glenn-Copeland reflects on the reissue of seminal album Keyboard Fantasies for its 35th anniversary
“The time is out of joint – O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let’s go together.”
– Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5
For much of his life, Beverly Glenn-Copeland has been out of sync. He can, of course, keep perfect time on the piano and harmonise disparate melodies – so perhaps it is the world that has been out of step? Simply not ready for the child who ‘sang inside with an outside voice’, the Black student learning classical German Lieder, nor the man finally gifted with the language to identify as transgender after five decades of dissonance?
Up until the pandemic – which rendered him and his wife briefly homeless due to a sudden loss of income – the 77-year-old musician was enjoying a twilight renaissance after an act of serendipity. Ryota Masuko, a Japanese record collector, had stumbled across the American’s 1986 album Keyboard Fantasises, and requested any additional copies back in 2016. At its initial self-release, Glenn-Copeland had only pressed a couple hundred tapes, selling roughly half, and so shipped the surviving cassettes with a detached bemusement. They sold out immediately, and within months, a litany of record labels were clamouring to re-release it alongside previous work. Forming a new band with young musicians from Nova Scotia, Montreal and Toronto shortly after – dubbed Indigo Rising – the group toured around North America and Europe before it was made impossible to do so. With significant cosmic lag, it took thirty years for the artist to reap what he had sown.
The seeds for this late bloom, however, were planted early. Raised in a peaceful Quaker community in Philadelphia, Glenn-Copeland’s ‘cradle-music’ was Beethoven, Brahms and Bach, courtesy of his father who played 5 hours a day, religiously. Helping to cultivate a diverse community in many ways removed from the racial strife of mid-20th century America, his mother taught him where his family first came from – West Africa – and the wavering pitch needed to sing old spirituals. “Musicality is deep in my family’s RNA,” he reflects over Zoom in rich timbre, each vowel resonating across the digital divide. “My uncle studied music back in the 1930s and my grandmother was a gorgeous singer. I owe my parents a great deal because I was surrounded by such constant, beautiful sound all the time, which affects the growth of your brain. Through them, I discovered I was a vocalist, that music was within my body.”
In 1961 he attended McGill University, Montreal, to study classical European song-cycles. However, after drawing ire from peers and teachers for his uncompromising expression of race and gender, as well as being the only openly non-hetero normative person on campus (it would be 8 long years before same sex relationships were made legal in Canada), Glenn-Copeland dropped out before finishing his degree. Compounding this fallout shortly after, he came within a whisker of being interred in a mental health institution by his parents, were it not for a swift, proactive exit out the front door of his physicians. Traumatic pseudoscientific ‘treatments’ at the time included electro-shock aversion therapy, and when I ask him how he is able to look back at these events without anger, he confides that is because of his faith he has been able to endure, and even find peace, with the past.
“I started practicing Buddhism when I was 29, joining a lay organisation called the Soka Gakkai,” he explains, before demonstrating the sect’s deep, staccato chant of ‘Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō’. “I believe at our very core we are in fact Buddhas, and Buddha is an ordinary person who exhibits infinite capacity for compassion, wisdom and courage. The problem is, life deals you all kinds of stuff. Your deepest levels get covered up with the trauma that you experience. My faith explained to me that my happiness was not dependent upon what happened to me, but rather what I made of what happened to me.”
“In each lifetime, we make causes – I was born transgender, which in and of itself is nothing unusual or difficult. But I decided to be born at a time where nobody understood it, and in which you could be zapped in the head and lose half your brain because of it. However, the very suffering that I went through was something that I could overcome, and which I am now able to share as a lesson for others who are misunderstood. If you can access that innate wisdom and courage, there’s a good chance you will be able to make the experience deepen your compassion, instead of anger. Your life is bigger than the pain you’re experiencing.”
Armed with an acoustic guitar post McGill, Glenn-Copeland started a new life in Toronto. Working with some of North America’s finest jazz musicians at the time, two albums were swiftly recorded in 1970 six months apart – Beverly Copeland and Beverly Glenn-Copeland. The progressive, operatic jazz-folk they offered was beautiful – comparable to Joni Mitchell or Tim Buckley’s work at the time – but only achieved mythic, underground status due to their complex categorisation and therefore difficult marketability. The self-released At Last! (a brief EP with flashes of funk-rock) followed a decade later, and another six years would pass before he recorded his magnum opus.
Keyboard Fantasies is a lighthouse amidst a tumultuous sea. It’s the rocks that the waves break over, maybe even the water itself once the storm subsides. It is in no rush, suspended in ancient amniotic fluid, a place of endless electronic ambience. A deep space lullaby. At times primal in its simplicity, strange and joyful, like the clarion call of angels on Neptune. Listening to it for the first time is akin to glimpsing Apollo 17’s Blue Marble. Because, for all its sci-fi fantasy, its about us and the world we live in.
The six ethereal tracks that comprise the album were in part born from the remote town of Huntsville, Muskoka, where there is “moose by the gazooks”. Glenn-Copeland was living a quiet life of seclusion and simplicity at the time, shovelling snow, accidentally running up on cougars and making sure his family had food on the table. “It’s an extraordinarily beautiful part of the world, there are 30,000 lakes in the area alone,” he notes. “It’s all on the Canadian Shield, which is pure granite, so there’s nowhere for plants to root. Traditionally, the people who lived there were hunter gatherers. Even European settlers had to hunt and gather. It’s wild, in a wonderful way.”
Although inspired by the sublime Romantic awe of nature, it is the unnatural that drives the record, and which elevates it to dizzy New Age heights. Despite personal computers being available in the 70s, home computers were only really developed in the early 80s – once Glenn-Copeland got his hands on one he was obsessed: “It was a whole new universe. The computer allowed me to explore sounds that, at the time were very basic, but meant that I could take a cello line, or horn that I liked, without having to pay lots of money to a player or record a rehearsal. I was finding sounds that no natural instrument could make, noises that might exist but that we don’t hear, as well as the natural world synthesised – water running, fields of birds. It was fabulous, like an orchestra at your fingertips.”
Acting as a conductor – tuning into what the instrumentalist describes as the ‘Universal Broadcasting System’ – Glenn-Copeland slept an average of 4 hours a night during its creation, feverishly writing the whole album with just a Yamaha DX7 synthesiser and Roland TR-707 drum machine. And, even though it is very audibly a product of its time, it still sounds, to borrow the name of the first track, ‘Ever New’. Why has it had such a powerful rebirth? What is it that people hear that makes a 1986 album – now being reissued by Transgressive on its 35th anniversary – sound so relevant?
“The reason is you,” he replies sagely. “I read a forecast many moons ago that a generation was going to come that represented the step out of teenage-hood into adulthood for the human family – it called you the ‘Indigo children’. I looked for you for a long time. When Keyboard Fantasies was being transmitted to me, and for a while after its release, many of these children were still in their mom’s bellies. I put it out there, but you heard it, your peers responded because it was talking about things that your generation is sensitive to. What are we doing to the environment? How are we living as a human family? Why do some people have so much, and others have nothing? That’s your mandate for the future. You’re teaching us now.”
Indeed, one of the most moving sequences in the award-winning Indie Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story, part-biopic, part-tour documentary, is a Q&A session in the Netherlands. A young transgender member of the audience expresses gratitude that they are able to share space with a trans elder, to which Glenn-Copeland responds, “You’re teaching me. You realise that, right? You think in ways that has taken me years to be able to come to. It’s startling and stunning to me.” For someone such as Glenn-Copeland, who came across the term ‘transgender’ in the early 90s and only publicly identified as such in 2002, this brief exchange illustrates why dialogue across generations – something the musician passionately advocates for and which modern Western societies have overlooked at their peril – is clearly vital.
As our talk (every minute a blessing) draws to a close, I ask whether it’s gratifying the world has finally caught up with his music, or whether this late, critical acclaim has accentuated the temporal idiosyncrasies in his personal and creative life? “I feel that this was meant to be the time for this music,” he reflects, “the time for me to talk about these things. I feel totally in sync with the times now. Once the pandemic is over, the dream would be to record some new music and do another tour. In truth, I’m know that my time for touring is limited because my body is getting to a certain point and it is hard. I want to be able to say thank you to people one more time, though, and be in their presence.”
“If I had had a more typical career trajectory, none of this would be happening and my real purpose would have been missed. So actually, I was in the right rhythm for what I was supposed to be doing all along. I think that’s what the universe wanted.”
The penultimate lines in ‘Ever New’ are uncannily prescient: “Welcome the child whose hand I hold / Welcome to you both young and old”. The ability to reach through time, to touch new generations of listeners like Glenn-Copeland has done, is down to him having been so deeply present and true throughout his life. If classical German titans were the Septuagenarian’s cradle music, the Indigo children have Keyboard Fantasies and its creator’s story as a blueprint. A hymn to help the world transition from a place of prejudice, to one of love and understanding.
Beverly Glenn-Copeland reissues Keyboard Fantasies on April 9th via Transgressive
All photography Alex Sturrock
Special thanks to Posy Dixon and Liv Proctor for sharing their documentary Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story when researching this story