Music

Ever New

Beverly Glenn-Copeland performing at MoMA PS1 as part of VW Sunday Sessions, Long Island City, New York, 2019. Photo: Nathan Bajar.

FOR FIVE DECADES, Beverly Glenn-Copeland quietly transcribed the melodies that floated to him, as he tells it, as if from a distant radio tower. A classically trained singer born to two musicians in Philadelphia, he released his first pair of albums—Beverly Copeland (1970) and Beverly Glenn-Copeland (1971)—after moving to Montreal to study music at McGill University. Both records showcase his agile and adventurous songwriting in a jazz-inflected folk style; neither enabled him to gain a foothold in an industry that had little room for queer Black singer-songwriters. Glenn-Copeland wouldn’t release another full-length album until 1986. 

Written on an Atari personal computer, a Yamaha synthesizer, and a Roland drum machine, that year’s Keyboard Fantasies had an initial cassette run of 200 copies, of which Glenn-Copeland sold about fifty. The album would lie dormant for the next thirty years, until the owner of a Japanese record store emailed Glenn-Copeland with an offer to buy the remaining copies. As the cassettes moved quickly off the shelves, word spread about the album’s unassuming beauty, its warm and dexterous use of early digital synthesis and open-hearted vocals. In 2017, Keyboard Fantasies saw rerelease on the Toronto label Invisible City Editions, which led to renewed attention and a string of performances across Canada and Europe. After nearly half a century of making music, Glenn-Copeland had found his audience. 

A new compilation, Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, traces the artist’s career from his early days as a folk balladeer to his omnivorous current practice. Its narrative mirrors that of Posy Dixon’s 2019 documentary, Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story, which explores the years he spent working in obscurity, the realization of his identity as a transgender man in his fifties, and how in his seventies he came to be embraced by millennial listeners. The film captures part of a performance at Le Guess Who? in Utrecht, a full recording of which was released as a live album earlier this year. Dixon’s camera glides across the faces of a mostly young audience beaming at Glenn-Copeland and his band, composed of musicians in their twenties. This same crowd appears on Transmissions during “Deep River,” an exuberant live rendition of a well-known spiritual. Glenn-Copeland invites the audience to sing along with the song’s climax, and they do—tentatively at first, and then with gusto. When the band stops, he thanks the audience emphatically, an illustrative moment of genuine intergenerational interaction wisely included in the compilation. 

Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland (Transgressive, 2020).

Much of Glenn-Copeland’s career has taken place in relative solitude. He wrote and recorded Keyboard Fantasies while living with a partner in rural Canada, sleeping only four hours a night and spending as much time as possible playing his digital instruments, whose flexibility opened new planes of sonic possibility. The Yamaha DX-7’s ability to mimic acoustic instruments eliminated the need for human collaborators to flesh out Glenn-Copeland’s arrangements. A lone keyboard that can imitate an entire orchestra, the computerized surrogate emphasizes the musicians’ absence. From within this inherent loneliness, Glenn-Copeland’s songwriting bends toward the possibility of connection, renewal, and growth. On the two songs from Keyboard Fantasies included on Transmissions, he repeats phrases like mantras: “Welcome to you, both young and old / We are ever new,” he sings on the languid “Ever New.” On “Sunset Village,” against a winding and playful synthesizer riff, Glenn-Copeland lightly urges us to “let it go, let it go now.” An album that centers his solo voice nevertheless hints at the inherent communality of music, its power to bind composer and listener in a single moment across time. 

Four of the compilation’s thirteen tracks come from the 2004 album Primal Prayer, originally released under the pseudonym Phynix. These electroacoustic compositions loop new collaborators into Glenn-Copeland’s musical world, including the mezzo-soprano Maggie Dace Hollis, whose striking voice electrifies “La Vita.” Another Primal Prayer cut, the shuffling, swirling “A Little Talk,” directly precedes “Montreal Main (The Buddha in the Palm)” from Glenn-Copeland’s 1983 EP At Last!, a juxtaposition that highlights his work’s remarkable continuity. Both songs feature life-affirming aphorisms (“It’s not the hills we climb, it’s the practice of climbing,” he asserts on the older track, while the newer is replete with “hallelujahs"); both set the expressively coarse edges of Glenn-Copeland’s voice atop lively grooves. 

From the early love song “Durocher,” taken from his 1970 debut, to the murmuring, wistful “River Dreams,” a new song recorded in 2018, Transmissions seizes the common thread winding through Glenn-Copeland’s body of work. Like his contemporaries Leonard Cohen and Arthur Russell, with whom he shares a knack for writing melodies so satisfying they sound as if they’ve been unearthed from ancient memory, he sustains a singular voice no matter his setting. Throughout his life and career, Glenn-Copeland has curled toward the truth of himself, patiently trusting the way forward. Transmissions maps that slow path and the beauty it’s reaped, collecting the outgrowth of a life spent in devotion to music—music that for years lapsed out of time, and now finds itself in sync.

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