Going Exploring With Beverly Glenn-Copeland

Going Exploring With Beverly Glenn-Copeland

by Devan Díaz

Beverly Glenn-Copeland does not listen to music. Instead, he translates it — a process that began before he was born. His mother played piano for an hour a day while he was in utero, hoping music would seep into his genes. It must have worked. Classically trained, he spent much of his career composing for kids' TV shows. In his downtime during the mid-1980s, Glenn-Copeland self-released Keyboard Fantasies on cassette, unacknowledged at the time but now recognized as an underground classic.

Glenn-Copeland became one of the first Black students to enroll at McGill University in Montreal in 1961. He began working on a popular Canadian children's program Mr Dressup, a northern Mr Rogers equivalent, after graduation, and would go on to spend twenty-five years with the show. When he wasn't working, he sought out silence and solace in the natural surrounds of the Canadian Shield, three hours north of Toronto. Keyboard Fantasies came about when he began to sonically explore this landscape using synthesizers and drum machines. A breakthrough moment in electronic music, it would be thirty years until the album would find its audience, after a Japanese fan bought up old cassettes and started distributing them to tastemakers in 2015. Several reissues have followed.

Today, the seventy-five year old has joined me for coffee in Brooklyn, NY. He's immediately warm, bypassing a handshake for a hug. Secluded from the noisy morning bustle, we carve out a space for ourselves to talk. As Glenn-Copeland begins telling me the story of his life, I leave my post as an interviewer and just listen. He's a talker, full of wisdom, and you would be unwise to derail his vision.

As heads sink deeply into their laptops all around us, Glenn-Copeland never breaks eye contact. When he laughs he implores me to join him, and it is difficult to not feel embraced by his optimism. What does the future hold for him? Everything, and all at once.

How was music part of your home?

Both of my parents' genetic backgrounds had musicians in them. They didn't make music professionally, almost no one could make music into a living. Even today, it's almost impossible, except for a very few. My dad was born in 1921, which is almost 100 years ago, so it was never a consideration. His mother was an incredibly gifted musician, but she was born in 1880, perhaps the first generation out of slavery. On my mother's side the same thing is true. My mother had a brother who was born in the '20s; he actually went to university and majored in music. You didn't do that as a Black person in those days. His life was as a singer, but he managed to combine singing with his career. My dad would be playing classical music, and heard it all from his mother.

Is there a specific memory of your father at the piano?

My father sat at the piano, except for early in the morning we'd go to school. Memories of my dad are of him sitting at the piano. I have a lot of other memories, but my primary memory is him playing.

If music is "genetically" embedded into who you are, as you say, what is your relationship to it when you aren't performing or recording?

I don't listen to music. I stopped listening to music in my day to day life shortly after I finished my classical studies. When I turned to writing it, I lived in silence. I've lived in silence for most of my life, except for when something would come to me because you can't avoid music if you're living in society. Although, I've primarily lived in the woods most of all my life, so I could make a life without it. I didn't even watch television. But things would come to me, nevertheless, because they were supposed to. If something came to me that moved me very deeply, I'd listen to it for two years straight.

"I don't listen to music. I've lived in silence for most of my life."

You were studying this music?

Yes, but it wasn't because I wanted to learn how to do it. That never occurred to me. I would listen to music that was affecting my heart. When I was a teenager, it was all kinds of music, like the drums of West Africa or Chinese music. It was the sounds of the world. Of course, that included anything folk and jazz. I was a sponge. Maybe that's part of the reason that as an adult, I'd absorbed so much, I needed things to be quiet. There was never silence in my head, only in my environment.

Why was the silence important to you, when you left Philadelphia for Canada?

I moved in order to attend McGill University in Montreal in 1961. I've never actually considered the importance of it, as something I decided consciously. It was something that I needed, so I did it. I'd go into my studio when an idea was coming through me. If I'm in my car, that's where I listened very intensely. I had a real good sound system and I would crank it up! [Laughs] Play whatever three records I was obsessed with and I'd just drive and cry. [Laughs] The other thing that you have to understand, my best friends are visual artists, not musicians. Visual art is probably the most important to me, with the exception of music, but that's genetic and I don't have to think about it.

As a classically trained musician and a pioneer of electronic music, did the years of training prove to be helpful when you set out to create 1986's Keyboard Fantasies?

Keyboard Fantasies was the first time where I felt I had a palette that included the best they could come up with, back at that time, that included orchestral instruments as well as other acoustic instruments and even sounds acoustic instruments couldn't make. Perhaps somewhere they could and I wasn't hearing it. The universe is full of sound and we have a limited spectrum of sound that we can hear. I felt like electronic music, even though it was within my hearing range, pushed something. It helped me imagine new sounds.

"I knew at some point that if humans lived long enough, we'd start to create life beyond us."

Did it sound like the future?

It was the future, it was now, it was the present. I knew that as time went on there would be new sounds, and the technology would get better. There was something else to it, though. I've always been interested in physics, and when I was younger I read science fiction, but only written by astrophysicists. So, basically, what they were writing was speculative science. One of the things I learned very early on in my readings was that physicists have concluded that life was either carbon or silicon-based. Of course, this theory has evolved, and when you learn more you realize how little you know. [Laughs] But at that time, they speculated that carbon was what we were, and that the universe had many carbon lifeforms. It was also said to be likely that silicon lifeforms existed. So, what was a computer if not silicon-based? I looked at it and thought, "It's the beginning of a new life form!" What thrilled me about it is that humans were discovering how to create life. I knew at some point that if humans lived long enough, we'd start to create life beyond us.

In the past you've described the computer as an instrument, which I found fascinating, considering how utilitarian they've become. What do you make of the ways people are using them today?

One is that it opens the way for communication, on a world wide basis. Which means we have the opportunity to become world citizens, through a computer. Traditionally we were limited to 100 miles; that would be all that many generations of us would see. My family lived in tiny communities. It's nothing for your generation to have friends in another country, no less get on a plane to visit them. Computers have the possibility of uniting us as a species, and helping us understand other people's lives. The downside is that we can easily lose track of the natural world. I observe people a lot, because I don't own a smartphone. I only use one on tour, when I need to hear from my manager. Other than that, I'm usually watching. What I see is that people don't look up, or forget to make eye contact. We've become a culture of strangers. It's become just a world of input.

You spent 25 years on Mr. Dress Up, a popular children's TV show in Canada, while you were creating Keyboard Fantasies. What compelled you to make this album with your spare time?

Fortunately, Mr. Dress Up was not a nine-to-five job. They loved what I did, probably because I was a big kid. You got to dress up as anything in the world, it was pure slapstick. I always wanted to be a slapstick comedian. This was an opportunity for that, as well as writing music for the show. So I did that, but that was a very small part of my week. Most of the time I was able to stay at home, and just write music. It presented no conflict. I was very lucky to have the time to work on things I loved.

"We've become a culture of strangers. It's become just a world of input."

Who were your peers while you created this work? You mentioned your friends earlier, was an active community important to you?

My community were a lot of trees. The bear that would come and visit beside the door. The rabbits, the deer. The natural world, that was my companion. Then I had a group of friends, who had different kinds of work. Some were physicians and all kinds of artists. We had our elders and they were totally of the same mind. Getting together was important and there were five families of us. Anything we could think to do together, we did. It was a spirit family. These are people who knew everything about me, and I knew everything about them. The elders were cherished, and they took care of us. Occasionally they would say something so wise all of our jaws would drop.

That sounds so beautiful.

It was. You're the first person to ever ask.

Keyboard Fantasies wasn't an immediate success, but in recent years it seems to have found its audience. Was that ever discouraging for you?

I knew there was nothing else I could do. I was never going to not translate what I was hearing. I know I came into this lifetime to translate auditory sound. I don't know why, but I did it. There would be times of suffering, because I had no other skills. I can't say I would do it exactly the same way again, but maybe I would have to do it that way. I did what I had to do to put food on the table. Often I was taking care of the kids, and my mate took care of providing. I got to spend my time caring for people, while creating music. I was very fortunate.

Since Keyboard Fantasies has been remastered, what did it feel like to hear something you know so intimately receive an update?

The interesting thing is, I don't listen to my own music. When it's done, that's it. I might listen to it a bit after it's finished, but usually I try to move on to the next thing. It was a chance for me to re-familiarize myself with it. I gave them the masters that I had and they did a beautiful job with it. I listened to it and I had this feeling of How did that ever come through? I don't even know what some of those chords are! [Laughs] That happens to me, though. Things will come to me, I'll write it down, and when it's all put together I have trouble playing it back. I don't recognize it, because it doesn't feel like I wrote it in the first place. It always feels way beyond me.

So these ideas came through you, not out of you?

We co-create with the universe, but that's because we are the universe! [Laughs] Creating is part of our instincts, all of us, no matter what we create. Every single person is a creative instrument. Nothing on this earth is put together in the same ways, we're all different. Even identical twins are not identical. So it becomes everyone's responsibility to figure out what they're going to make. I don't just mean the arts. Every person has something only they can offer.

"I never knew there would be a time where not fitting would fit."

How does it feel to have musicians today responding to Keyboard Fantasies?

I am stunned. I feel so grateful that this album has found its audience. It makes me cry, which I am doing right now! Out come the hankies! [Laughs] I feel so embraced. I don't even have words for it. I never thought this would happen, because I wasn't geared to it. After so long, I just assumed I didn't fit. I never knew there would be a time where not fitting would fit. Now there is, thanks to your generation! I feel deeply nurtured.

It is comforting to know that something can be created and still find its audience, regardless of time.

If what you feel deeply in your bones is yours to create, and it happens to be exactly what society is currently embracing, go for it. There is nothing wrong with that. You're not selling out, if in the depths of your being this is what you want to say. If it isn't, don't put yourself in a pretzel in order to try to make something that will be accepted. Ultimately, it will have very little true value to yourself. You might end up feeling deeply compromised. If what you do is not what is in the mainstream, just think of yourself as being a little bit ahead of your time. [Laughs] Stick with it!

What is your current creative practice?

It's the same as it has always been. I have been very lucky that the universe keeps sending me things. I can't always translate it, but when I can, it always blows my mind. I have many many many songs, from way back to things I am writing now. This winter I'll be recording a new album, some of which are still being made.

Are you excited about the future?

I'm very optimistic about the future. That doesn't mean I'll see the promise land. I am in the later stages of my life, and if I get 20 more years that will be amazing. [Laughs] My generation has left yours with a huge mess, for which I apologize. I know that I won't see it. It might be two or three generations until humans see it. Still, I am so optimistic about our ability. We are an incredibly creative species.

Photo courtesy of Motormouthmedia