Beverly Glenn-Copeland - Keyboard Fantasies Music Album Reviews

Beverly Glenn-Copeland - Keyboard Fantasies Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s masterwork from 1986, a hermetic and wondrous new age album that contains worlds beyond worlds.

Just off of U.S. Highway 37 in Sylvania, Ohio, lies a small, butter-colored hamlet of retirees. Its name, “Sunset Village,” suggests that you or your loved ones will enjoy a warm, bucolic, well-reckoned end, should you choose to settle there. Like all retirement centers, Sunset Village comes with a lot of practical provisions: The age for admittance is strictly greater than 55, the majority of properties are for rent, rather than purchase (for obvious reasons), and, based on your need and price point, staff can cater a menu of care options under heartbreaking titles like “memory support.” What comes free and without caveat, however, is the tacit understanding among its people that colonies like these will very likely serve as their last earthly stop before deboarding this mortal coil.
Not unlike all-inclusive resorts or monasteries, senior communities are among the most meaningful attempts we’ve got in the sustained pursuit of pinning and freezing time. These are societies interested in life existential, not life chronological. They acknowledge the end at their outset, make peace with the idea of transience, and build entire ecosystems designed to strip life of its formal trappings. Seeing them from this angle might clarify why the often-used, flourishy euphemism “active living community” can feel so bizarre and science-fictional—it throws into relief what sort of living the rest of us do in the meantime.

In a satisfying and totally arbitrary coincidence, there exists another sunset village at the end of an equally strange and otherworldly cassette released in 1986. Like the album that houses it—and very much like the Ohioan villa of the same name—“Sunset Village” (side B, final track) also happens to be an arcadian resting place that holds the question of time, and its movement, at its center. The song is fundamentally just a short poem paired alongside a simple synthesized piano melody—not very far from something you would use to hush a baby. Each time I find myself replaying it, I’m freshly amazed by how accurately it manages to recreate the wooziness so inherent to bliss, heartache, or finality, how it definitely holds some spiritual dominion with the fish of the sea and birds of the air, and, with just 11 words, how it teaches the intricate idea that wisdom is just another word for knowing what to accept. It will also bring your pulse rate down to about 40.

The artist responsible is Beverly Glenn-Copeland, a man endowed with such rare fortune that he remained more or less a non-entity to the music-curious public until the age of 72 when a particularly influential record collector from Japan sent him a life-altering email asking for any remaining physical copies of his early music. Deep into a peaceful, years-long toil in the Canadian hinterlands with his wife, Copeland was suddenly faced with the task of living his way out of a placid, relatively private existence, and into one in which documentarians tour his home like a museum and take seriously his thoughts on the intersection between science and the divine.

Newfangled global interest for Copeland, as you might imagine, is unimaginable. Under the rough and ridiculous circumstances of any life, the fate of late-bloomed fame holds unique surprises. Watching artists like these confront contemporary milestones of success, like good streaming metrics or outpourings of online support, seems to give them an expression permanently set to stupefied. The sizeable hill of praise that’s been furnished onto him across the last two years—mostly from a growing sect of left-field record collectors, a gaggle of celebrities, and those lucky enough to have been gifted URLs to his music by wise friends or lovers—carries a uniformly grateful, even devotional air of protectiveness. “Mostly, I’m eating my Wheaties and all my vitamins so I can perhaps live long enough to finish what it is I’m supposed to be doing here,” he admitted during a lecture two springtimes ago in Montréal.

Chalk Copeland’s recent boom up to the inscrutable forces of destiny that slowly pull upon a person over the course of their life. Chalk it up to the easy digestibility, maternal swaddle, and mental asylum so inherent to the sort of music that we now call new age. Chalk it in no small part up to Copeland’s own journey of self-discovery as a transgender man that now aligns neatly with the triumphant contemporary attitude toward publicly articulating one’s complicated identity. Regardless of what exactly set off the recent Copeland rumble, his is a coming-of-age story probably most due to his dreamy, boundless frontierism that sees no encroachment, no fear, and no distinction between anything resembling a beginning or an end. In some ways, it’s a story of inevitability. It may be because his life seems to be governed by, and has always been governed by, a sunset village from the outset.

Despite an especially twisty and sometimes glum biography, Copeland appears as serene and composed as a friendly monk. In lieu of robes, his daily uniform includes a button-down shirt, a pair of puffy, pleated chinos, and a scrub of chin fuzz the tint of a long-boiled egg. As seen and heard in the groundswell of videos and interviews with him across the last two years, as well as in harder-to-find footage from more than two decades ago, his voice leaves his mouth with a pleasant moisture—like he is somehow always on the end of a spoon of peanut butter—and is elastic, as prone to characters and impressions as a puppeteer’s. Age and circumstance have made his tone slightly darker, richer, and honeyed the cooler vibrato he had in his 20s, but the thermostat of his manner seems to have always been set to warm.

“Father was a brilliant European classical player,” gargles Copeland at the top of his 2019 biopic, also titled Keyboard Fantasies, throwing his head back on a chair and treating the word like mouthwash. Since “cradlehood” (his own charming term), Copeland seems to have been equipped with the twin gifts of promise and idiosyncrasy. His mother, Georgie Willis, who was a formidable pianist and an even more formidable academic, bears the honor of being the first Black woman to complete a graduate program at Penn State University. The pathetic pace of American integration in the 1940s, however, meant that though she could legally attend classes, she was denied the right to live on campus. Fate would install a generous Quaker woman in Mrs. Copeland’s path, who she would go on to live with—thereby allowing her to continue attending Penn State—but the very friendly neighbor would also go on to spiritually move Georgie with the pacific doctrines and credos of Quakerism. It’s why the Copelands joined a Quaker congregation in Philadelphia shortly thereafter, and why Glenn found himself reared in the safety of a community that gave him the clearance to exist in an alternate, sheltered dimension distinct from the more fraught realities that stained so much of Black childhood in late Jim Crow-era America.

Georgie held hope that, upon entering a large and foreign city away from the security of their Quaker eden, her child would be seen by the public as both normal and non-threatening. Copeland immediately torpedoed this idea upon entering McGill University in Montréal by becoming the ultimate disaster: He wore his hair afroed, entered into a same-sex relationship, and was introverted to a degree of hermitude. It also probably didn’t help that he was studying European classical music with a penchant for a particular German style called lieder, which sounds a little bit like opera sung by loud, sad angels. To be out, Black, bizarre, and 17 in 1961 was an open invitation to get one’s ass kicked not only literally, but legally: It would be eight more years until Canadian Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau would decriminalize consenting homosexual partnerships (34 years before every state in America would do the same).

“At one point,” Copeland says, with the comfortable, breezy tone of someone who has a high capacity for empathy and a near non-existent one for resentment, “my family ganged up on me and forced me into a car and took me to a physician who was going to have me interred in a hospital.” The plan was to give Copeland the then-fashionable electroconvulsive therapy in an attempt to zap the gay out of his head and heart. Others might have treated this episode like a hostage situation, a mortal betrayal, or both, but Copeland, in a flush of grace toward himself and his family, quietly rose from the bed, gathered his stuff, and jogged out the front door before anyone could notice.

Once Copeland returned to Montréal, he got serious about getting serious with music, and decided he had had enough of McGill. He dropped his classes and descended upon Toronto, settling luckily alongside a manager and league of total strangers who, he was delighted to figure out in studio sessions later on, made up a small league of Canadian jazz heavyweights. Alongside men like bassist Dough Bush, electric guitarist Don Thompson, drummer Terry Clark, and principal guitarist Lenny Breau, Copeland committed his first noodlings to permanence.

Though the two albums he made in the early ’70s were commercial catastrophes, his eponymous 1970 work is a piece that leaves me fundamentally confused by its exclusion from most modern canons. The folk is freaky. The riffs are seraphic. With all the leider residue in his arias and tremolos, these albums feel like songbooks of spirituals for the unspiritual. There have been obvious parallels made to Joni Mitchell in the music’s blueness and timbre—especially in how Copeland warbles like god has just asked him a difficult favor—but a more fitting comparison would be to Judee Sill, an artist who shares with him an alloy of Christian folklore, Bach-indebted chord progressions, and a sense of servitude to a quiet, inarticulable secret. “By and large, the early music was looking at death, love and the difficulty of love,” he once indifferently summed, though I would argue that a track like “Untitled (Make the Answer Yes),” is the sort of song that one could sensibly choose to be buried to.

Blindness toward negativity, unfounded optimism, and curious guilelessness are traits not often blent in the same adult in 2020, but at the center of this Venn diagram lives the broad idea of being “childlike.” Copeland is definitely childlike—strange, virtuous, glib, and peaceful—in myriad and impressive ways. The documentary devotes one longish scene to his ritual of enjoying a cup of apple juice before each performance, and it seems, per the frequency of its use in nearly every one of his interviews, that his favorite word is “magic.”

It only seems natural that Copeland would have had a career as a sort of jester with a synthesizer on a few children’s television shows while between albums. Young Canadians in 1973 might recognize him costumed in polyester alongside straw-haired, rosy-cheeked, anemic little puppets on Mr. Dressup, a show analogous to (and in fact hosted by the understudy of) the American Mister Rogers. But his work on Dressup meant that he was somewhat in the public eye—and at the time, he performed and lived as female “Beverly,” which made it doubly difficult to reconcile the unplaceable and unsolvable dissatisfaction he carried around. “How would you do that?” he asked of a journalist in 2005. “Walk in one day as Beverly Glenn-Copeland and come back two weeks later as a changed being? I just couldn’t figure out how to do it.”

It’s not that Copeland didn’t understand that his body was at odds with his brain at that point, but it wasn’t until 15 years after his initial work on Dressup that he found the language and the wherewithal necessary to give expression to an idea he knew was true since infancy. He was laying on the sand, reading a book, “and I just kind of sat up and went, ‘I am transgender.’ And I had never put those words to it.” In 2002, long departed from Dressup and armed with the fortitude to answer his private riddle, Copeland publicly transitioned to male.

The author Andrea Long Chu—a writer, who, in the past few years, has become exceedingly good at substantiating the quandaries of trans personhood for mainstream audiences—puts the amorphous feeling of dysphoria into lucidity by calling the lifelong sensation a “vague but maddening sense that something is off about the world.” In other words, gender incongruence is a slippery yearning, a “hunger without appetite,” a strange, evanescent idea of an achievable but permanently just-out-of-reach reality. It should make a lot of sense that the successful juncture between what seemed like fact, and what seemed like fantasy, would form the central thrust of Copeland’s masterwork, Keyboard Fantasies.

In 1983, he traveled to a small cabin in a sleepy village three hours north of Toronto. Ordained by his manager to go off and write something good, he bought and hauled along an Atari computer and two synthesizers—the Roland TR-707 and the Yamaha DX7—eagerly awaiting the prospect of holing up, shoveling snow, and playing with his new machines. Copeland views computers with appropriate humility (“I would walk around and go, ohhh, because I couldn’t do anything with them,” he once said) but feels tantalized, paralyzed by the alternate realities unlockable within them.

It’s difficult to overstate how aggressively synthesizers in the ’80s were marketed as portholes to the future—ad copy for incoming makes and models would spend paragraphs positioning them as “Products of the Space Age,” alongside taglines like “Science Fiction? No: Science Fact!” Deep inside the machines were near-to-life versions of the instruments Copeland had studied and honored for so long, but at a supernatural slant. “There were sounds that were acoustic, sounds that only a computer could make, and sounds that could come from a violin,” he explained, but only “if you used a lot of imagination, or squinted your ears.” To Copeland, his machines represented the impossible made perfectly possible. When he first laid eyes on an Atari, he says, “it was like, ‘Oh, so this is the beginning.’”

If we emerged from the primordial soup with keytars in hand, Keyboard Fantasies is what our tribal lullabies would sound like. After weeks of sleepless tinkering with his toys, the album was born as a sextet of chuggy, spare, somnambulant pieces built by some of the most basic preset tones from the DX7. The DX7 offers a unique, and, at the time, enthrallingly new alphabet of programmable sounds—so much so that the instrument would go on to feature in most conceivable pop in the ’80s, from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack to work by Whitney Houston—but here, the galactic, plummy, and utterly standard “electric piano” setting was put to work across Fantasies’ six tracks, each of which sound like ancient, foundational plainsongs from a dimension not far off from our own.

Keyboard Fantasies seems to pureé wisps of cultural sounds into a new Pangea. “Ever New,” the opener, has vibratos as operatic as a lovesick Persian ode, lyrics as if from a self-help pamphlet found in a Bolinas co-op, and pentatonic scales with ascending intervals as spare as Japanese Shōmyō folk. “Winter Astral”—a totally voiceless Rothko of a song—reminds me of Buddhist breathwork in the intervals between Copeland’s lingering pressure on the keyboard. “Old Melody,” a piece that carries the joke of its sheer existence as false indigenous music in its title, is as lucid dream-inducing as alien cradlesong. Like a project under the long-celebrated and well-documented “Fourth World” music umbrella described by frequent Eno collaborator Jon Hassell, Fantasies is filled with “unknown and imaginary regions,” each one helmed by its peaceful and sole inhabitant, Glenn.

It’s curious that Copeland has been referred to as an “outsider” artist in recent reviews and breathless press releases. On the one hand, it does seem like a natural, knee-jerk description: the characterization of some art as “outsider” is a term usually ladled onto work that’s seen as unknowing of its own power, either through the artist’s lack of formal training, or a by the nature of its unpretentious existence outside of hoary art-historical canons. More often, however, it’s a title given to those who work in isolation, who have no profit motive, or, in many cases, are marginalized out the gate by their own identities (poor, Black, queer, et cetera). Though Copeland has said that Fantasies carries the “innocence that was part of [his] experience at the time,” there is nothing untrained or undisciplined about it. Classically educated and formally fluent, I suspect it is more a shorthand used because we lack the language to identify something that seems like it accidentally dropped onto Earth.

“Sunset Village,” the album’s denouement, is so extraterrestrial, it might single-handedly explain the confusion. The ballad is less a song as it is a viewpoint—a lot like the vertiginous sensation you might feel when looking out of an airplane window onto a quilt of land thousands of feet below. Strangely comforting, sidereal, and on the thin tightrope between alienating and familiar, it’s the strongest unconscious paean to Copeland’s fascination with science fiction. He’s spoken about finding particular calm in the works of David Brin and Isaac Asimov, but not exactly in the mass-market editions interested in slime apocalyptos or glowing squids from Saturn. Instead, Copeland prefers a notion of sci-fi that’s treated more as a defined, earthbound school of thought—one Asimov would clarify in a preface to Octavia Butler’s short story collection, Speech Sounds, the same year Copeland created Keyboard Fantasies. “Science fiction,” Asimov wrote, “is committed neither to marvels nor to disasters. It deals with possible situations.” For as strange and faraway they sound, “Sunset Village” and Keyboard Fantasies writ large present a quiet desire not exactly for escape from this world, but to imagined likelihoods on the most alien planet of all—this one.

The idea of elderhood is of enormous significance to Copeland. He mentions it frequently in the documentary, and it crops up reliably across interviews. On several occasions, he salutes “the elders” of the community in Huntsville, Ontario—where his snowy studio was housed—that "took care of [him]” in the hours of his most vigorous synthesizer mania. The second-most affecting scene of his documentary comes during what looks like a casual Q&A, when a young devotee takes a microphone and thanks Copeland for the honor to share the floor with—gesturing toward Glenn—“our trans elder.” “Ahhh,” intones Copeland, nodding softly, visibly experiencing some sort of apotheosis. “Mmmm.” He takes a beat that feels like a decade. “You think in ways that it’s taken years for me to come to,” he says. “It’s about knowing things I don’t know.”

At the far end of several generational gaps to his fanbase, Copeland is aware that there is much more he is unaware about, but there are at least a few things that come with surety. In the documentary’s most unforgettable sequence, Copeland sits peacefully in a metal chair and sobs. It’s moving for a number of reasons, but largely because it seems cruel to have Copeland cry on camera. “I’ve figured out what I’m supposed to do,” he says. “I’m supposed to support these young people.” It firms an idea he once directed to a room full of wide-eyed, hungover fans in an interview released earlier the same year. “Do not fail to give your hearts. Do not fail,” he intoned, nodding toward the crowd. “I’m going to be watching you all from another dimension.”

That exact image happens to live on the album art for Keyboard Fantasies. On it, there’s a photo of a stained glass window in wedges of lemon, blue, and plum, framing a silhouette that looks a lot like the back of Copeland’s head facing out onto a shore. It’s too perfect—if nothing else, sight and solace have always been Copeland’s anima. In a life steered by the trying-on of new and strange vantage points, the cover works like a skylight to the clarity of his vision: one unburdened by any system, any path, any idea beyond inhabiting himself most accurately.
 
Stare at that window long enough and you can start to imagine everything—the sea, the sky, the sand, even Copeland—in a state of total suspension, deepened by the light of a sun that seems like it takes forever to set. He has never really needed much to grant him fullness. We’re so obviously the ones that do.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Beverly Glenn-Copeland - Keyboard Fantasies Music Album Reviews Beverly Glenn-Copeland - Keyboard Fantasies Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, September 20, 2020 Rating:

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