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Back To The Future: The Music Of Beverly Glenn-Copeland
John Harris Dunning , November 13th, 2021 14:20

The legacy of musician Beverly Glenn-Copeland is finally honoured with the documentary Keyboard Fantasies, a labour of love by director Posy Dixon – who speaks to John Harris Dunning for tQ

The music of Glenn Copeland – who records under the name Beverly Glenn-Copeland – is unclassifiable. “You’ve heard Glenn talk about the way he receives music,” explains director Posy Dixon, referring to her film. “It’s just whatever’s coming through. He’s one of those artists who’ll never stop creating. And he does it in such a vacuum. That’s why it feels genre-less.”

Copeland was born Beverly Copeland in Philadelphia in the 1940s to parents with West African, Canadian First Nations and German heritage. Both were musical, his father a classical musician and his mother sang gospel. He grew up in Greenbelt Knoll, one of the first planned racially integrated developments in Philadelphia, and among the first in the United States. “It was tiny – nineteen houses on this street in a forest in the suburbs,” says Dixon. “It was affordable income family housing, and it was organised in a way that there had to be 45% African American families and 55% white families living there. The guy who designed it was a Quaker, and Copeland’s mother was a part of the Quaker community, so they got a house in this neighbourhood. Copeland grew up on this idyllic street, a cul-de-sac in the middle of a forest with deer running around. Obviously, all the people who chose to live in a desegregated community in the 1950s were all pretty right-on. He grew up in this bubble of a neighbourhood, so he didn't feel he didn't feel the daily effects of racism to the same extent.”

It couldn’t entirely mask the reality of racist American that surrounded him, but like Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neal Hurston who’d grown up sheltered from it in Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-black towns, Greenbelt Knoll had a buffering effect that impacted Copeland’s outlook and later creative output. There’s a gentleness to his work, and a deep love of the bucolic that he returns to again and again. This sense of reaching for a utopian space – suffused with an indefinite but palpable spirituality – can also be likened to the work of the avant garde jazz musician Sun Ra.

Copeland’s cultural heritage was an ongoing influence on his music. “He was trained as a classic lieder singer, which has these quite repetitive melodic forms,” says Dixon. A German vocal tradition, lieder singing has a strong storytelling tradition and is often linked with poetry. “You can hear that in the way he writes. Whatever mode it's coming out in, whether it's folkier, or synth, or the more recent stuff that feels more gospel-driven almost, you can hear these rhythmic cycles. Then you can always make out the West African drum pattern in there somewhere. He had an incredible three-octave vocal range from a really young age.”

Copeland won a scholarship to the prestigious McGill University where his musical vision began to take shape. But he also experienced a growing sense of isolation. A snapshot from the time shows an attractive young person, dressed androgynously, smiling shyly at the camera. He felt uncomfortably visible as one of the university’s first black students and was also starting to grapple with his gender identity. Copeland recorded two albums in the early 70s – Beverly Glenn Copeland and Beverly Copeland. Neither made any impact, and he turned his back on the music industry and disappeared into obscurity. But he never stopped making music.

Copeland’s output remained prodigious over the years, and his constant curiosity in new sonic horizons led to a keen interest in technology. In 1986 he used nascent digital musical equipment including a Yamaha DX7 and Roland TR-70 to create his masterpiece, Keyboard Fantasies. Part electronica, part folk, part science fiction reverie, it was all Glenn Copeland. It reached the public in the unassuming form of one hundred cassette tapes – only fifty of which sold. Decades passed, and it was only when Japanese record store owner Ryota Masuko finally heard it in 2016 and started promoting it to his network that it began to gain an international reputation. “He’s a really special character,” says Dixon. “He runs his store in a small town outside Tokyo. It’s only open three days a week, for four hours a day. You're not allowed to take photos or take a phone into the record store. He’s a real music purist. The fact that he’s the one that got the tape…” Kismet, pure and simple. Another key component in getting Copeland’s music heard was Brandon Horcura who created the label Séance Centre. Brandon reissued Keyboard Fantasies on vinyl in 2016.

From these humble beginnings, Copeland’s international popularity quickly snowballed and at seventy-four years old, he embarked on his first international tour. Dixon was there to film it. “When I started talking to him the first thing I wanted to do was record him playing Keyboard Fantasies, because he'd never played it live. Ever. Selfishly, that's what I wanted. Initially he said, ‘That’s so sweet honey, but I'm not really interested in Keyboard Fantasies. I want to work on my new music and record that.’ Over the next six months more and more young people got in touch with him.” Copeland quickly realised that audiences were really connecting to the record and that it was his duty to honour it.

Dixon took the footage she already had of Copeland and decided to extend it into a feature length film. “That’s when I talked to Liv Proctor, the producer I work with,” she says. “I’d never make a feature before, or anything independent on this scale. She was convinced this was the one, that we should just do this.” This assemblage of footage – some archival, some live performances, some interviews with Copeland and his collaborators – gives the film a richly textural feel. “I always wanted the film to feel like an audio-visual tapestry of his life,” says Dixon. “I miss having this project to work on because it was just so immersive. I moved out of my flat because I couldn’t pay my rent and moved into my friend’s attic. It was a real labour of love.”

Although it was Keyboard Fantasies that put Copeland on the map, he’s amassed an extraordinary musical legacy over the years. “A very Buddhist quality of Glenn’s is that he’s very much in the present,” says Dixon. “When I was making the film, the hunt for anything archival was just so painful! He’d talk about all this music that he’d recorded but would say it’s on an old broken computer, or an old floppy disk. He just wasn’t interested in digging it out. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to show anyone, it was more that he didn’t want to go backwards. He always wants to go forwards.” Luckily, his fans can still look back; when he signed with Transgressive Records and got management about a year ago, they systematically explored his archive. Some of that material’s been released since, and he’s just recorded a new record, which are mostly songs he’s composed in the last or six years. His old website – – is a treasure trove of past material, including record covers Copeland created himself on Microsoft Paint.

A huge generosity shines through all Copeland’s work, a quality that has rewarded him in turn. “Glenn has been making music since the moment he could breathe and has been relentlessly sharing it with the world for the best part of sixty years with no financial benefit,” says Dixon. “Last year – when COVID happened – Glenn and his wife Elizabeth were halfway through moving house. He had a big tour booked, and with this bit of income coming in they were moving to Ontario. Their new house fell through, and they had to move out of their old place, so they essentially ended up homeless. Elizabeth's daughter put up a GoFundMe crowdfunding page. I think they were looking for about $30,000, and within four days they had $90,000. It was all the people that have been listening to his music. There was something so profound about it. He's essentially skipped out of the capitalist system and just given and given and given – and then when he needed support it, he got it.”

Free of any marketing hype or algorithmic manipulations, the music of Glenn Copeland offers contemporary listeners a truly authentic voice, a rarity in today’s cynical musical landscape. The fact that Copeland has managed to offer a consistently uplifting, hopeful vision over the decades, despite the tumultuous and even violent social context that spawned him is perhaps his most impressive achievement. Like any prophet, his long years wandering in the wilderness have borne fruit that will nourish all of those who come after him.