"This is the time that I’m supposed to do this"
By this point, Beverly Glenn-Copeland is used to waking up crying. Now 75, and in his 48th year practising Buddhism, the Canadian composer will often come to weeping for joy, “overcome with the beauty of being able to observe the universe.” He adds with a laugh, “a little later on in the day I’ll be weeping because we’re ruining it, but whatever.”
You need spend no more than five minutes in Beverly-Glenn’s company to realise that he’s a deeply spiritual person. Serene and refreshingly open, he radiates all the positivity and warmth of someone who’s both at peace with their past, and far too thankful for the present to allow banal, day-to-day gripes to become a burden. But then, as a cult figure in the fields of new age and electronic music – currently enjoying a late-career renaissance – and as one of the first openly transgender musicians, Beverly-Glenn’s life has been anything but ordinary.
Born Beverly Copeland in Philadelphia in 1944, he recalls a near-idyllic childhood with his Quaker parents, insulated from the racial discrimination routinely suffered by people of colour at that time. An early obsession with the European classical tradition led him to study the German Lieder singing style, and that in turn prompted his move to Montreal to study classical music at McGill University. A folk music career was begun and abandoned in the early ’70s, with Beverly-Glenn subsequently relegating music-making to a private hobby. And then, in the early ’80s, the advent of affordable personal computers facilitated a pivotal creative breakthrough.
“I’ve always been interested in speculative science,” he says. “And one of the things that was being talked about at that point was that the basics of life as scientists understood it were based on either carbon or silicon. And so, for me, when I understood that computers were based on silicon it was like, oh, so this is the beginning.
“I bought [a personal computer] from England, and it was this big exactly,” he explains, circling his palm. “It came in the mail and I wandered around with it going, ‘I just love it! This is amazing!’ But I couldn’t do a thing with it because I wasn’t a programmer. It wasn’t until about 1984 when I bought an Atari, and at the same time a [Roland] TR-707 drum machine and a [Yamaha] DX7 keyboard with all these interesting sounds in it, that I was off to the races. Because suddenly I had access to an approximation of acoustic sounds, plus all these sounds that no acoustic instrument could make.”
Filtering his classical training and folk sensibility through this rudimentary electronic palette, Beverly-Glenn created Keyboard Fantasies, a third album that felt as futuristic as it was transcendental. Self-released without fanfare, Beverly-Glenn pressed around 150 copies on tape and sold less than half. “Of all the copies I sold, probably 30 were all to mothers who were putting their babies to sleep,” he smiles. “They would say to me, ‘Oh, this music is so calming to my little one.’ And it’s those very babies who are now buying tickets to my shows.”
Keyboard Fantasies is calming. Comprised of ambient instrumentals and serene devotionals, it’s since been hailed a new age classic, and retrospectively linked with releases by Laraaji and Pauline Anna Strom, plus the work of Japanese trailblazers Midori Takada, Mariah and Yasuaki Shimizu. Yet, even if there had been a precedent for Keyboard Fantasies, Beverly-Glenn wouldn’t have known.
“I know it’s not normal for most musicians, but I live in silence. I don’t listen to music at all unless something comes across my ears, and then I will listen to it exclusively for a year or two. I will study it. Not because I’m going to emulate it, but because it’s so profound that it’s feeding me on a spiritual level. So, I didn’t really know what was going on in the world [at that time]. I might as well have been a monk. All I knew was that this [music] was coming through, coming through, coming through, and I was translating it as fast as I could.”
After its release, Beverly-Glenn simply moved on, making a living contributing music for, and performing in, children’s television shows like Mr Dress-up, Shining Time Station and Sesame Street. It wasn’t until Japanese record collector Ryota Masuko reached out on email in 2015, asking to buy any unsold copies of the album, that Beverly-Glenn had any idea of Keyboard Fantasies’ cult status. In the time since, Beverly-Glenn has toured Canada, the UK and Europe, and found himself the subject of several documentaries, including Posy Dixon’s recent film Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story. There must be some satisfaction to be found in finally getting your dues, I suggest.
“It’s not like dues; we’re not due anything,” he responds gently but firmly. “Mostly it feels surreal because I think I stopped thinking that anything was going to happen with this music back around 1980. I didn’t need anybody to understand [my music] – I needed to write it, which was different. And because my great joy was in being able to write the music, I never thought about it in any other terms. But when it did eventually happen I remembered something. When I was young, I went to a palmist and he said to me, ‘Everything will happen in your life when you’re old.’ And when all this happened I went, ‘I get it! I’m old now!’”