Update: Because Charles Joseph Smith has lost income due to the pandemic (the Fine Arts Building, where he teaches piano lessons and works as an accompanist, is closed), on April 11 he launched a GoFundMe campaign to help him afford to have food delivered.
Chicago pianist and composer Dr. Charles Joseph Smith has just released a new music video for “Flourishing Cities of Undead,” a moving portrait of isolation peppered with glimpses of the nighttime sky over downtown. Though the video accompanies a version of the piece that appears on his 2018 Sooper Records release, War of the Martian Ghosts, and was filmed in 2019 at the Fine Arts Building, it seems tailor-made for the Chicago that many of us are experiencing now: a room to ourselves, with longing for connection lingering on our minds.
Smith is an accomplished musician (the “doctor” comes from his Doctor of Musical Arts degree, which he earned in 2002 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) as well as a familiar face in the audience at Chicago’s DIY spaces and outre music concerts. He’s currently writing new material for an album on Chicago’s Mississippi Records, which also had a hand in the video.
For the video, filmmaker Cyrus Moussavi (who helps run Mississippi Records) collaborated with Brittany Nugent (who works with Moussavi in the Raw Music International documentary collective) and director Sebastián Pinzón Silva. The choreography and movement, however, are entirely Smith’s creation.
“Charles and I met through Chicago artist and oracle Angel Bat Dawid, who appears in the video,” says Moussavi. “Angel, myself, and our collaborators in Raw Music International have been working on a documentary together for the last year, and Dr. Charles made a cameo in that film. Angel is a big fan and supporter of Charles’s work, and suggested we shoot a video for him. Charles invited us to the Fine Arts Building, where he teaches piano lessons, and when we arrived we found that beautiful room you see in the video. It was that dusky time of evening, everything was blue, you could see the lake, and the whole feeling and concept came together when we stood in the center of the room.”
The video for “Flourishing Cities of Undead” starts with Smith playing a piano in a practice studio at the Fine Arts Building, stacks of chairs in a pile behind him. About 30 seconds in, he gets up from the piano bench, and as the music continues without him, he begins a dance that addresses the entirety of the otherwise empty studio and the world beyond its windows. Bat Dawid then becomes a dance partner to Smith, traveling through the empty hallways of the Fine Arts Building. It feels like a dream sequence, a memory of time spent in the company of friends, and it’s jarring when the video returns to the darkened piano studio—Smith dances alone again, and the sky through the windows recalls the blue screen of Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Blue (itself a response to a different virus).
April is National Autism Awareness Month, and Smith lives with autism. He’s cofounder of Celebration of Joy Incorporated, a nonprofit that helps people with autism enrich their lives through the arts. As he explained in 2017 on the alumni pages of Roosevelt University, where he earned his Bachelor of Music in 1994, “You cannot cure autism and sometimes people need to accept that they have it. They can’t change it, but they can fight back.” Smith has written hundreds of compositions over the years, having spent much of his life learning the skills to bring the music in his head out into the world. He maintains a Bandcamp page, where you can find War of the Martian Ghosts and other recent recordings.
“One fine day when things open up,” Moussavi adds, “I also highly recommend you ask Charles in person for whatever CDs and tapes he’s got on him at the time. The archive is vast.” v