The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Renaissance Continues
A new documentary and an album of re-workings by modern indie stars continue a late-breaking celebration of the long-ignored artist's work
In the summer of 2021, Glenn Copeland, the artist born Beverly Glenn-Copeland, gave a performance every day at the Guggenheim museum, projected as an 84-foot tall version of himself. As part of artist Wu Tsang’s exhibition Anthem, Copeland seems to possess the entire building, visible from all angles, reaching from floor to ceiling. Throughout his performance of a cappella melodies and his rendition of the spiritual “Deep River,” his voice is strong and true. When Tsang heard Copeland’s music for the first time, she remarked that “it was like conjuring a place I wish I lived.”
Copeland’s mother told him he “came out of the womb singing,” a mark of personal achievement given that his mother “decided that [he] was going to be a musician in utero.” In director Posy Dixon’s new documentary about his life and work, Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story, Copeland tells stories of his childhood and his long path to the present. He recalls that his mother “would play the piano every day that she was pregnant,” but that his father was an even more devoted musician, coming home from his job with the Philadelphia school district to “play Chopin for five hours a night.” In a voiceover of childhood pictures, he lovingly describes how his father would rush to eat dinner before he and his mother set the table, so that he could “run to the piano and play dinner music.”
Born in 1940s Philadelphia to Quaker parents, Copeland was shielded from many of the worst injustices of that time and encouraged to pursue music in their sheltered, intentional living community. Later, as one of the first Black students at McGill, Copeland trained and performed as an operatic singer. Then, still identifying as a lesbian, he faced significant struggles from both peers and the administration, until he was finally forced to resign from the program or undergo electric shock therapy, a horrific but common practice that doctors prescribed for queer people. His exit from McGill and ongoing tensions with his parents, who had been his greatest champions, left an overwhelming feeling of not belonging. He articulates a dislocation and isolation shaped many aspects of his life as he negotiated his identity, declaring in the documentary, “I was transgender in a straight world, a Black person in a white world, and an artist in a business world.”
After leaving Montreal, he moved towards exploratory poet-folk projects, collaborating with other musicians in-studio and pursuing his own compositions, but for decades, he made little forward momentum in his work because “no one really understood it.” Sheepishly, he is willing to admit now that “maybe it was ahead of its time.” Copeland carried on, slowly but not undeterred — recording a debut album in Toronto, trying out other genres, buying an early computer to produce electronic work, writing for Sesame Street, moving far into the Canadian countryside, and later working as an actor on the Canadian children’s show, Mr. Dressup.
In 2015, after decades without performing and without public releases, he got an email. Japanese record collector Ryota Masuko had found a copy of his 1986 album Keyboard Fantasies and asked to sell it in his store. Copeland attributes his career’s resurgence to this exchange. Within a few months, not only had every copy sold out in Masuko’s store, but it also caught on with influential producers like Four Tet and Caribou.
The new attention sent him on a world tour; he reissued Keyboard Fantasies, he received dozens of offers from labels and thousands of new fans. His work has now moved far beyond his home studio. In Keyboard Fantasies Reimagined, the forthcoming collection of remixes on his now-classic album, Copeland’s pieces are reworked with loving tenderness by visionary young artists like Bon Iver, Arca, Julia Holter, Ana Roxane, Kelsey Lu, Blood Orange and others. The tracks take on another life, aided by ambient, spacey effects, reinterpreted as if they are ancient melodies. On Bon Iver’s rework, co-performed with Flock Of Dimes, Justin Vernon lends his scattered electronic production, sparse brass, and gravelly voice to the sweet melody of “Ever New.” It’s an impressive contrast from Kelsey Lu’s version, what she calls a 10-minute “transportation” of the same song. Her rework opens with a haunting violin, quietly plucked strings and Copeland’s highly manipulated electronic voice. Both offer an insight into the sturdy brilliance of Copeland’s compositions, songs that can be teased out in different directions and remain true to their essence.
In person, Glenn Copeland is effusive, communicative and heartfelt; words gush out of him with conviction; there are moments in his interviews where he begins to cry, his voice cracking with emotion — almost always when he is talking to his audience (young people) about their role in the future, which he believes is “to save the world.” At other moments, he speaks like a master of his discipline, confident and precise. Throughout, he leaves room to praise his fellow artists, honored and awed by their talent, and encourage anyone he is speaking to. He works to be open and generous with everyone he meets; a characteristic that shapes all of his interactions. Sean O’ Neill, the executive producer of the series In The Making, traveled to Japan with Copeland in 2019, and jokingly described his presence as “Glennergy.” O’Neill says, “it’s like the world kind of opens up around Glenn. People are disarmed by him, and drawn to him. Things seem calmer, less frantic, there are fewer glitches.”
And as Copeland describes at length in the film, he finds meaning everywhere. When his computer refused to record vocals for a year, he was forced to “use Garageband, learn loops, and reconnect with the percussions that I had neglected.” When he felt tired of the European music that he had trained for during his whole young adulthood, he was drawn to world music, explaining that “classical European music is what I did in one lifetime — but in this lifetime, I want to listen to the world.” Working on one song for 30 years, he felt convinced that a single afternoon session signified that he was “finally ready to receive the message.” He advised young musicians during a lecture that “if you’re not ready to receive an idea from the universe, it will go to someone else — a year later, you will see their project and recognize the idea as something familiar, that’s just how it works.” He calls this the “Universal Broadcast System.” In an interview for an experimental short film, he shared, “I’m so happy that so many other people are now hearing it and going ‘this is very beautiful music’ but what you should understand, folks, is I’m just the messenger.” You can hear a self-effacing smile beneath, happiest when he is in tune with the divine.
Now in his late seventies, Copeland considers all timing cosmic, especially his late introduction to the wider music world. Describing his first concerts, he was shocked to find that he had “an audience of young people, 90% of these people are youth, in their twenties.” It imbued him with a renewed sense of purpose: to connect with them. He shared his resolution in the documentary:
“Young people only ever hear how selfish they are — they never hear how wonderful they are. I asked, “Is this the purpose of my life?” Maybe that’s why nothing’s happened until now. [It’s because] I’m supposed to support these young people. I’m supposed to tell them how beautiful they are… I’m going to travel, I’m going to sing, music will be how I tell them how thrilled we are, how much they’re needed, how happy we are to see them.”
The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story is grounded in the real story of Copeland’s real life, spent wandering across landscapes, overcoming personal challenges. He shares his childhood, his hardships, his creative process, his deep admiration for the natural world, how he has felt assured of both himself and his path even while his work went unnoticed. There are critiques to be levied: important details left out like his commitment to a Buddhist practice, his travels around Canada and the United States, how essential his relationship with his wife Elizabeth has been to his practice. It doesn’t always feel like a documentary that Copeland had a hand in directing.
But there are other moments that ultimately feel exclusive to the film, and for that reason, make it a particularly touching documentary for Copeland’s fans. The project’s most intimate scenes are his interactions with his touring bandmates, a group of 20-year-olds who just seem happy to be there. Together, they set up for their shows, poke fun at each other, argue about what to eat for lunch, break into spontaneous dance parties; at every moment, their mutual care and admiration is heartfelt. In other spaces, he is so remarkably self-possessed and deeply intentional, always at ease, while never betraying any sense of performativity. On stage and in interviews, he seems to have full command of his audience and the spectrum of his own emotions, conjuring them like an instrument. But in this horizontal arrangement, Copeland shuffling among his peers, he takes a step back, getting silly, doing character affects, a little awkward, jostled around by his young friends on slightly unsteady feet. It’s a tender contrast to a sometimes-mythic story — Glenn is just like us.
And yet Copeland, who spent the majority of his life creating quietly, mostly alone and without widespread recognition, believes he creates in service to a divine creative energy. He describes his music as coming from the creative force of the universe, akin to how “the earth is always creating her Art that is Nature.” In everything he does, he offers an invitation to the world around him to witness the divine, to be present and brave and true. This profound sense of poetry and power is captured in Copeland’s most popular song, “La Vita,” an anthem for being in the world. It feels as if everything unfolds perfectly and on time, as always.
And I work and I work all day and night
I wonder if I’m ever gonna get it right
I push and I push to get ahead
I know I gotta make my daily bread (ascolta il cantore)
I know I don’t have time to lose
I wonder if I really have time to choose
I barely have time to shed a tear
I hardly have time to shake the fear (lui che canta)
And the body says, “Remember you gotta breathe”
The body says, “Take the time to grieve”
The mind says, “Let the silence flow”
The mind says, “Allow yourself to grow” (che la vita e bella)
The spirit says, “Cast your eyes above”
The spirit says, ” Fill your heart with love”
The heart says, “Seek the light within”
The heart says, “Let the dance begin” (pace, pace)
And my mother says to me, “Enjoy your life”
Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story opens 10/29 in theaters and on VOD. More info on the film can be found here. Keyboard Fantasies Reimagined is out 12/17 via Transgressive.