The composer Beverly Glenn-Copeland weaves his way toward the stage, so slight and unassuming that he is barely noticed by the hipsters thronging the bar. Dressed in a uniform of pressed chinos, neat tie, and a mile-wide smile, he looks out over the audience and says, “Wow!” under his breath, as if he can’t quite believe all the fuss is for him. He seems more like an excited kid than a man in his mid-seventies. His band, who are all 40-odd years his junior, begin layering hypnotic, looping melodies. Glenn-Copeland lifts his arms toward the rapt crowd and sings “Ever New,” his ode to blooming flowers and regeneration, in a voice like summer rain itself.
Versions of this scene, from the 2019 Posy Dixon documentary Keyboard Fantasies, were meant to play out across the United States this year. After his back catalog, spanning nearly a half-century, was discovered by a Japanese aficionado a few years ago, then reissued to great acclaim and wide appeal, this was the year that Glenn-Copeland, who goes by Glenn, was supposed to tour the world and finally turn a profit. Then the pandemic devastated that plan. At the end of May, his daughter Faith started a GoFundMe page to help her parents finance their new home.
“Covid threw a right-hand uppercut,” Glenn-Copeland told me over the phone this week, from his home by the ocean on the east coast of Canada’s New Brunswick, across from Prince Edward Island. “And then, once I got off the floor, presented me with gifts I could not possibly have known about.” Fans, moved by the plight of this septuagenarian Black trans artist who had just been on the cusp of receiving his due, rushed to his aid, donating enough money to keep Glenn-Copeland afloat.
That Glenn-Copeland was buoyed by a younger generation is no coincidence. He has known the indifference of their predecessors, as well as their prejudice, and now his time has come.
His life began in Philadelphia in 1944, born to a talented pianist father and a mother who sang everything from lieder to spirituals. Glenn-Copeland (then Beverly) listened to whatever he could find on the radio and bought records galore, his tastes ranging across China, India, and different parts of Africa. He received a classical education in music, and you can still hear that training in the sound of his voice, which has deepened over the years but retained the burnished, controlled vibrato he learned as a child.
He told his mother he was a boy at age three, and remembers “making muscles in the mirror” when all the girls were primping their hair. As he grew up, he said, “some of my subconscious, bit by bit, began to emerge.” He realized that the music he was drawn to, like West African drumming, related to different strands of his own DNA. “I said, ‘I see: This is the West African. This is the Irish and the Celt speaking here. This is the Indigenous part speaking here,’” referring to his father’s mother, who was raised Cherokee. In a 2017 interview, he recalled the first time he heard bagpipes, in Montreal. “I had never heard pipes before and I ran into the window and just burst into tears,” he said. “I almost passed out, it was so amazing what I was listening to. It struck such a deep chord. Unbeknownst to me, I had Celtic grandmothers.”
Glenn-Copeland received a scholarship to study music at McGill University in Montreal, where he was the first Black student in the faculty of music when he arrived in 1961. He lived in a women’s residency and was open about his relationships with women at a time when that was dangerous. Homosexuality was only decriminalized in Canada in 1969, and he describes his dorm-mates as “totally, totally freaked.” More importantly, “So was the assistant dean of women of the whole university. Not the dean of women, she wasn’t freaked at all—but the assistant dean of women didn’t know that.” When he eventually fled the women’s residency, he recalled with a plum-rich laugh, the dean of women ended up giving Glenn-Copeland and his then-girlfriend a bunch of furniture.
“I’m joshing about the whole thing now, but it was quite painful,” he said. “Especially because my parents were very involved at that point and worrying about me and thinking that I wasn’t going to be safe in society. And they were reading all of these psychological assessments [written] by psychiatrists, and believing it.” He didn’t come out as trans, he said, “until the society started having a bit of a conversation about the difference in folks.” He’s known he was trans since 1995, when he read a memoir on the beach in Cape Cod. As the writer described their earliest memories, Glenn-Copeland said, “I just sat up—because I was lying down. I just sat up and went, ‘Wait a minute. Those are my memories.’ And in that moment I went, ‘Oh, I get it. I’m transgendered. That’s what’s happened here, and there’s been no word for it. So how would I know what to call it myself?’”
The issue caused great pain between him and his parents. One day, when Glenn-Copeland was in college, they showed up, bundled him into a car, and dragged him into a clinic. He turned and fled out the front door, a decision he today thinks helped him escape institutionalization by a hair. It was hard for his mother to see him grow into somebody visibly different, and “she’d let me know how that was playing out every time I went out the door,” he said.
At the same time, his mother was kind and nurtured the artist in him. When he was choosing colleges, Glenn-Copeland’s “first choice was actually Curtis Institute, which is like Juilliard, but the only thing is that it was in Philadelphia. For me, that was right at home. But my mom said, ‘If you go to university in the same town, which I do not want you to do, I will not give you the freedom that you will need. I will overprotect you.’”
They reconciled in 1996, after Glenn-Copeland got a mysterious “warm feeling about my mom,” immediately followed by a phone call. “And it’s my mom. The first thing I hear on the other end is, ‘Oh, my darling. Please forgive me.’” She died in his arms in 2006, as he sang to her the same spirituals she taught him in the cradle.
“The trouble in my life because of non-normative behavior ended,” Glenn-Copeland told me, “when I went out on my own playing my own music.” After leaving McGill in 1965, he went to New York City to study opera for a year, before moving to Toronto. The first record he cut, Beverly Copeland, was with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and it was an extension, he said, of the classical repertoire of his youth. You can hear that pure and solemn tone on 1970’s “Colour of Anyhow,” which sounds like Joni Mitchell powered by three times the soul. The CBC album is now worth thousands of dollars in the original 250-copy pressing, which is highly sought after by collectors.
Folk and jazz were huge in Toronto at the time, led by musicians like guitarist Lenny Breau, drummer Terry Clarke, and pianist Don Thompson. All three appear on Glenn-Copeland’s self-titled record, also cut in 1970, which used his full name this time. “I was a little bunny, I didn’t know anything about anything,” he says in the documentary, but all he had to do was play them a song on the guitar, and they’d return a few minutes later to record instantly perfect takes, live off the floor. “I was awestruck,” he said.
Nobody knew how to market him or his music, so nothing happened, and in 1972 Glenn-Copeland took his awe north, to the Muskoka woods. In 1983 he self-released his intense funk-meets-blues EP “At Last!” which his new record label has made digitally available for the very first time this year. The great thunderbolt came a couple of years later, when he bought an Atari home computer system. Glenn-Copeland told me that he was obsessed as a child with science fiction novels, especially those that posited the existence of silicon-based life out there in the universe, as opposed to the carbon-based life forms we are. “I was fascinated by computers because I knew they were based on silicon,” he said. “And I figured that that was the beginning of, on our planet, dabbling with silicon life.”
In a way, Glenn-Copeland was making contact with hypothetical aliens when he began to duet with man-made software. By 1985, he said, “computers had gotten sophisticated enough for me to write music in my home in the middle of the woods and have a full palette of sound.” Since he couldn’t summon the drummers and orchestras and choirs of his fantasies, their computer-generated equivalents would do just fine.
In between shoveling snow, feeding his family, and sleeping four hours a night, Glenn-Copeland learned how to use his tools. Along with a TR707 drum machine, a DX7 keyboard synth, and his own instincts, the computer helped Glenn-Copeland manifest the urgent musical messages he says he intermittently receives from an entity he calls the Universal Broadcasting System. “I could be washing dishes,” he told me, “and suddenly my mouth opens and I start going, la la la la! And I go, whoa—what is that?” Now that he had a computer that could sound like a violin “if you squint with your ears,” in his words, the potential for translating these messages exploded. His intense experimentations in the literal and musical wild began.
“Ever New,” the lead track from his now-legendary album Keyboard Fantasies, from 1986, combines lyrics on the theme of biological regeneration (“Welcome the bud / The summer blooming flower”) with a cyclical, multilayered synth accompaniment. The song turns annual renewal into a way for generations to connect: “Welcome the child whose hand I hold,” he sings, “Welcome to you, both young and old.” There are flavors of early techno in the album’s heavier beats, and the dreamlike logic of his melodies predicts the soulful streak of deep house, as if Glenn-Copeland’s isolated dreams had traveled along the frequencies of the Universal Broadcasting System to reach the young, urban innovators of Detroit in the mid-to-late 1980s.
The record was self-released on Atlast Records as a cassette, but again, nothing happened. So he proceeded with his life, living in forested seclusion with his family and creating music, scripts, and performances for children’s TV shows like Canada’s Mr Dressup and Sesame Street—a job he loved but never felt at home in because of the shows’ compulsory heteronormativity. He kept recording, and in 2004 released the album Primal Prayer under the artist name Phynix. The extraordinary lead track, “La Vita,” is an operatic, trip-hoppy number.
The big break came in 2015, when a man named Ryota Masuko, himself something of a legend in the record-collecting business, emailed Glenn-Copeland from Japan to ask if he had any stock of Keyboard Fantasies, which had originally sold about 50 copies. Sure, Glenn replied, and shipped over three cassette tapes. They sold out, so he sent three more. Those went, too, and word started to spread. “Inside of a month, I had offers from 10 record companies,” he said. In 2016, Keyboard Fantasies was reissued and instantly recognized for the classic it has always been.
Since he began touring, Glenn-Copeland has been both astonished by the age of his fans and struck by how wounded they seem. After a show, one said to him, “Thank you for what you said about us. We only hear how selfish we are.” Glenn-Copeland was rent to the heart, and made a decision: “I’m going to travel and go out and sing as a way to be able to talk to them—to talk about how thrilled we are, how much they are needed, and how happy we are to see them!”
His devotion to young people is a feature, it seems, of a cosmic view of time and space: Everything in this universe is connected, and he is simply a kind of radio who can “tune in” to its sounds. As part of this capacious vision, Glenn-Copeland, who has practiced Buddhism for 40 years, considers the forest and its nonhuman inhabitants as much a part of that universe as we are. His music is profoundly about the natural world and the galactic expanse of which it is a fragment, and that includes the tangles of genetic code that shape human lives in ways we can’t control. His works reclaim the “natural world” as inherently queer, an almost loving riposte to those who try to use biological essentialism to bolster their transphobia or back up their retrograde views about racial purity.
When I spoke with Glenn-Copeland over the phone, we talked about our shared heroes, independent-minded pioneers like Alice Coltrane and Joan Armatrading. I didn’t mention that he also belongs with them in the tiny group of people whose lives could be a realistic inspiration for a young, queer artist today. I wanted to know how he did it: How did he make it to 76 years old so completely unjaded? As a young person, he explained, “I was very independent of what other people thought. I didn’t really care.” It was only in his teens that he learned psychiatrists considered queer desire “to be an emotional disease.” But he “never gave it two thoughts. I just considered they were out to lunch.”
That’s not to say that he could dismiss the world and its cruelties entirely. “I still have to deal with it,” he said. “When I go out the door, I know I’m representing Black people, because you never get to be invisible in a culture in which your skin coloring is not the dominant culture.”
The influence that Glenn-Copeland has had on musical culture has never been matched by material reward. That is changing now. Young people understand so much more than their elders, he thinks. His message of eternal renewal represents a striking anomaly amid the cynical, doom-laden identity otherwise assigned to Generation Z. For him, these young people are facing historical forces that have morphed and regrouped since the time he attended a homophobic university—and they’re in desperate need of encouragement.
Late last year, Glenn-Copeland returned to the United States after almost six decades away, to perform alongside a screening of the documentary Keyboard Fantasies at MoMA’s PS1 in New York. Starting this week, you can purchase Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, an anthology record that mixes new material with songs dating back to 1970. It was put together by Transgressive Records, which has also released one of its tracks, “River Dreams,” as a single, and reissued the 2004 album Primal Prayer. When I spoke to Toby L, the co-founder of Transgressive, he said that the collaboration had “been one of the most soulfully enriching exchanges we’ve ever experienced as a record company.” Transgressive is now in the process of reissuing Glenn-Copeland’s entire back catalog, which includes several lost recordings.
His music has opened doors across genres and into the future, while his own memory stretches back to a world we’d barely recognize as ours. “There’s purpose to each life,” Glenn-Copeland says toward the end of Posy Dixon’s documentary. “My purpose—who knew!—was to encourage your generation about the fact that you all are going to change the world, and hopefully save us.” He adds, “I will be dead, but you will be doing that. I’m gonna be watching y’all from another dimension.”