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Beverly Glenn-Copeland: Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland

Beverly Glenn-Copeland feels like a balm for living in 2020—not just his music, but his life story. Glenn-Copeland was born in Philadelphia in 1944, and grew up in a musical household where his father played classical piano and his mother sang African-American spirituals. He was one of the first Black students to enroll at Montreal’s renowned McGill University, studying the oboe and German lieder; he was also one of the school’s first openly queer students, something that was met with terrible consequences from university officials. For more than two decades, he was a musical guest on “Mr. Dressup”—Canada’s precursor to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”—in addition to writing songs for “Sesame Street.” Over the years he intermittently released a few albums of his own music, most notably 1986’s Keyboard Fantasies, which finally found a wider audience three decades later, effectively resurrecting his career. (He’d be touring the world right now if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.) Though not without tribulations, Glenn-Copeland’s tale—being Black and transgender in a world where such lives are imperiled, being an artist in a world run for profit—is ultimately a triumphant one, conveying the hope that everything will be all right in the end.

His music is similarly reassuring, though its effects are much more immediate. Continuing his renaissance is Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, an hour-long introduction to his already-lean catalog. The 13 songs compiled here span nearly 60 years, encompassing Glenn-Copeland’s early folk tunes and his electronic forays into new age and worldbeat, plus a couple of live recordings. It’s a fine collection of songs, though it seems to function as less of an overview of Glenn-Copeland’s entire career than an introduction to his non-Keyboard Fantasies material.

The rediscovery of Keyboard Fantasies is a story worth retelling: In December 2015, a well-connected Japanese audiophile named Ryota Masuko came across the album, and was spellbound by what he heard. He then contacted Glenn-Copeland, who agreed to send Masuko his remaining cassettes, which the collector then shared with friends and followers; within two months, no fewer than 10 record labels came to Glenn-Copeland with offers to reissue the album on vinyl. It is likely because of its recent rise to prominence, rather than despite it, that Keyboard Fantasies only features twice on Transmissions: “Ever New” shimmers like ripples on the surface of a pond, while the electric piano tones and muted percussion on “Sunset Village,” true to the song’s name, bleed into each other in an autumnal glow. Gentle and hypnotically gorgeous, these songs (not to mention the other four on Keyboard Fantasies) remain some of the warmest and most organic-sounding pieces of music ever recorded on electronic instruments.

Despite Glenn-Copeland likening the Yamaha DX7 and Roland TR-707 he used to make Keyboard Fantasies to having “an orchestra” at his fingertips, the album sounds lithe and understated, like a set of folk songs played on a synthesizer as opposed to an acoustic guitar. In that way, it feels closer to the actual folk songs of his eponymous albums than his later, deeper dive into electronic music in the 2000s. “Don’t Despair” and “Durocher” from Glenn-Copeland’s 1970 debut, Beverly Copeland, evoke Joni Mitchell or Buffy Sainte-Marie with their poetic lyrics (“What’s the use of loving when hatred is so strong?” he asks on the latter, over an intricately fingerpicked acoustic guitar and an oboe) and Glenn-Copeland’s quivering vibrato. Several months later, Glenn-Copeland released Beverly Glenn-Copeland, a record that in its own way was almost as forward-thinking as Keyboard Fantasies; its 10-minute closer, “Erzilli,” is a breathtaking high point of Glenn-Copeland’s early years, a brisk jazz-folk opus featuring vocal acrobatics that rivaled even those of Tim Buckley (whose Lorca and Starsailor were also released that same year).

Keyboard Fantasies was the last studio album Glenn-Copeland would release for nearly two decades, as well as the last he would release under his government name. When he resurfaced in 2004 as Phynix, Glenn-Copeland traded the ambient textures of his previous outing for vibrant, even danceable rhythms. In a more just world, that album, Primal Prayer, would have been the one to spark Glenn-Copeland’s rediscovery; it’s his most ambitious work, drawing on genres as diverse as calypso and gospel, and the four tracks it contributes to Transmissions are the easiest for newcomers to latch onto. “In the Image” seeks transcendence on the dancefloor rather than a Zen garden, while the spiritual “A Little Talk” sustains its slow burn for seven minutes without ever running out of gas or exploding into rapture. Meanwhile, “This Side of Grace” and “La Vita” are practically hymnal, with the late Maggie Hollis lending her soaring soprano to the latter before Glenn-Copeland appears, singing a mantra as if leading a church choir:

“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’

This is what Glenn-Copeland’s music has the power to do—all but forgotten in the past, it offers a momentary respite from the present—and the wordless chanting and sweeping strings of his new song, “River Dreams,” only reaffirm its power to soothe and to heal. (Again, that it comes from a Black and queer voice makes it all the more resonant in this moment.) Almost certainly, Transmissions is going to introduce Glenn-Copeland to people who need to hear his work now, and that’s a very good thing indeed—but hopefully, it will also encourage them to dig deeper into his discography. These songs are best heard as part of a whole, and unfortunately, Transmissions just doesn’t provide the context for a song like “Ever New” or “La Vita” to pull you into the bigger picture; Glenn-Copeland covers so much stylistic ground between albums that a compilation really isn’t the ideal listening experience. If you’re looking solely at the songs on this disc, they’re great and you should absolutely give them a listen, but it’s worth the extra money to purchase the albums they come from.

The 13 songs compiled in Transmissions span nearly 60 years, encompassing Glenn-Copeland’s early folk tunes and his electronic forays into new age and worldbeat, plus a couple of live recordings.
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