Beverly Glenn-Copeland is a vocalist and composer, an early synth experimentalist, a Buddhist practitioner, sometime Canadian TV personality on Mr. Dressup, now a recluse in the Maritimes. A compilation of his wide-ranging musical career, Transmissions, appeared late in 2020. Glenn’s early music reminds me of Judee Sill: less dark-sided, but just as otherworldly. More recent compositions range from the rediscovered Keyboard Fantasies to a syncopated, drum-heavy cover of the spiritual Deep River: “Don’t you wanna go to that gospel, gospel feast?” Glenn observes that heaven is a code for liberation, but his gambit isn’t to secularize—just the opposite. Below, four poets, artists and listeners respond. — Kay Gabriel
Transmissions is an encore for a show that started sometime around 1970 when Glenn began releasing his collaborations with the Universal Broadcasting System, as he calls it. It’s a show that most of us didn’t know was happening and only recently stumbled into, so I thank Glenn for graciously inviting us in, in the manner of a wizard in the woods who knew we were coming, and catching us up on the cosmic messages he’s been arranging for us all these years.
We progress through the album as though through a house of many rooms, greeted by a medley of voices from across the span of Glenn’s life. The space between the snappy vibrato of Glenn’s youth and the warble of old age is a daunting one but not unlike an enchanted mountain that promises to keep you safe while you explore its meadows and waterfalls. Glenn’s is a soul flirting with its own omnipresence/emptiness. (That’s how I’d put it at least as a friend to zen buddhists. Those of the soka gakkai persuasion, such as Glenn, I expect have their own way of putting it). Going on a hike with Glenn I imagine would feel a lot like playing a game of peek-a-boo. Like a fawn of the muskoka woods, one moment he’d be blending into the trees, another moment we’d mistake him for a flock of loons flying over the water.
Throughout Transmissions we find bodies enlivened to hope, action, and dance—whether by our own inner drives as in “La Vita” or by the supernatural, ancestral loas encountered in “Erzili.” The theme of motion and what drives us to motion is a potent reminder in this time of covid lockdown. While our movements and connections with one another are circumscribed in novel ways, they never really stopped, and the scope of activity is far larger than what we’ve led ourselves to believe—“get up and dance!”
We can sit in idle wonderment asking how things would be if Glenn’s music had never been discovered, but nothing is ever really lost to time, the shape of its effects only changes. Glenn’s music remains as real as it ever was and will remain so long after caprice or otherwise takes our ears elsewhere. I think we should take a hint from “The Colour of Anyhow” and not embarrass ourselves by asking Glenn when he’ll retreat back into the silence of his studio or when he’ll be playing for us again. Instead I hope we can do our best to heed and expand on the messages the UBS has entrusted to Glenn and by extension to the rest of us.
Every day for 5 weeks this past summer, I had listened religiously to Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s music. I was preparing a video performance for Glenn’s live online concert hosted by WNDX, an experimental media arts festival in Winnipeg, Canada. I was supplied a tentative playlist that included some unreleased demos. Grateful and excited, I listened to the playlist daily for many hours whenever I could—in the shower, as I was preparing meals, in the car running errands, and at rest on the couch. I experienced seeing images of gentle colour, light and infinite space which seeped into my everyday life, transforming the invisible weight of the pandemic I was feeling into something I could see.
The day before the live concert, Glenn had supplied a song that wasn’t on the initial playlist, a version of “Deep River” that I would have never heard. I spent the day listening to it on loop as I worked on the visuals for it, entering a transformative trance as I imagined myself enveloped by a warm glow of ever-shifting colours, crossing a shimmering river with ghosts of beloved family and friends on the other side, with a large, glowing sun in the distance. Never had I felt such acceptance of death and its spectre. My fear transformed into light. After working deep into the night on my laptop, at about 3:08 a.m. I felt I had visualized what crossing over might look like. I shut down the laptop, hit the lights, and gently stretched out on the couch and welcomed the dark. I had intended on making my way to bed eventually, where my husband and cat were deep in slumber. I needed some time alone to reflect on the transformative power of Glenn’s music. Still vibrating with the sound of Glenn’s voice and djembe on repeat in my head as I lay, carrying me over into a peaceful and transcendent sleep.
As the Beverly Glenn-Copeland phenomenon advances from releases by niche labels and write-ups in mp3 blogs to anthologies and live performances put out by a more commercial label with features in prestige publications, it is worth reflecting on the particular circuit of cultural production that created the phenomena: the reissue. Particularly, how the narrative thrust of the reissue seeks to redeem the disastrous present with self-righteous reference to a supposedly reactionary, close-minded past.
As the story goes, Glenn-Copeland was living a quiet life when, in late 2015, Ryota Masuko—a music merchandiser in Japan whose store, SHE Ye,Ye, is followed by fans of oddball, experimental, and beautiful curios—contacted Glenn-Copeland to buy his backstock of Keyboard Fantasies. Self-released in 1986 in a run of 300, Glenn-Copeland had sold maybe 50 copies. Masuko sold out the remaining stock and Glenn-Copeland’s music began to spread through a network of leftfield music aficionados interested in obscure, forgotten, and far-flung releases from the past. By the late 2010s, this scene had produced a boom of reissues executed with curatorial and archival spirit—not to mention colonial and exoticizing tendencies1—in contrast to the crude cash grabs of box sets and anniversary reissues. In the context of a devalued music industry2 and the dominance of grotesquely alienating modes of music discovery, it is not surprising that people would look to the past and its curators for new music. Several years into the boom, Glenn-Copeland is perhaps the most popular discovered-by-reissue musician yet.
Behind the reissue is the figure of the crate digger. The crate digger searches far and wide through the crypt of the sedimented past, listening to endless hours of music in pursuit of the latent genius stored on wax, too ahead of their time to have been celebrated by contemporaries. The reissue formalizes the “discovery” as an event and product, imbued with the supposed innocence and warmth of analog technology. In the story that crate diggers, reissue labels, and the critics who write about them tell, they have the “honor” of providing a contemporary audience to an unjustly ignored and neglected genius. This genius was simply too ahead of their time to be recognized as such in the moment, but not by the enlightened ears of our intrepid basement, storage space, and back room digger.
Part of why Glenn-Copeland’s story may have attracted such attention is that, in this instance, the reissue’s narrative of correcting the historical record and revising the canon is intensified by its overlap with contemporary racial and gender representational politics. If there was no past audience for music this genre-busting and forward-thinking, there certainly was not one for it coming from a Black and queer composer. But today, institutions and publications hurriedly stumble to rectify and obfuscate their past exclusions and violences with processes of Seeing and Hearing queer and Black Voices, all while ruthlessly reproducing these very same exclusions—we are ready to receive a Black trans visionary; the canon will be corrected.
Which is not to say that this narrative is necessarily wrong, but that it traffics in the fiction of an enlightened and progressive present. As the Glenn-Copeland phenomena exemplifies, the various nodes of reissue production conspire to choreograph an encounter between the artist’s past records, their “present” self (whether alive or dead), and the “discovering” enlightened listenership that creates a kind of agitprop for the present. The liberal myth of linear progress is repackaged with feel-good biographical narratives. Artists and listeners alike deserve better.
A perennial music, one we’re always hearing for the first time. Strange then that meeting Keyboard Fantasies, Glenn-Copeland’s little heralded, now widely treasured, 1986 cassette, I felt familiarity—beyond the bubbling sequencer and his salubrious delivery, there was a feeling I’d misplaced, of joyful certainty and deep acceptance. This is the soundtrack to an irrepressible nostalgia for the future, for its sampled rudiments and glassy synthesis; a non-inaugural “new-age” in which our songs of innocence are heightened by experience.
Unlike so much music relegated to that sign, however, this is no commercial ceremony. Where many “new-age” soundtracks lack idiomatic depth, proffering a glossy universalism in their unambiguous tonality and archetypal fascination, Glenn-Copeland’s pastoral techno is suffused with blues and gospel, breath and rhythm. When he performs the spiritual “Deep River,” Glenn reminds us that these songs are about getting free on earth, in this lifetime; written by enslaved men and women deprived of their traditional instrumentation under the watchful eye of their oppressor. And as Glenn grew up singing them, he gradually resolved to “put the drums back in,” as a cultural referent and an act of repatriation. This loving gesture takes my breath away, as does the entire performance, reminding me that we owe the gift of this musical humanism to real struggles, in the present too.
This isn’t easy listening, then—this is a music that we listen for with all our knowledge, of ourselves and those who came before us, of our relationships and responsibilities, and of a world to come. What an incredible gift—thank you, Glenn.
1 Boima Tucker. “The Scramble for Vinyl.”
2 DeForrest Brown, Jr. “How Platform Capitalism Devalued the Music Industry.”