by Andrew Hertzberg (@and_hertz)
Dr. Charles Joseph Smith is one of the most committed members of the Chicago DIY music scene. He can often be seen towards the front of the stage or floor in front of the band, dancing to all kinds of music and experimental productions. Now, he has released an album unlike anything one can expect to find at most DIY shows: War of the Martian Ghosts is a work of primarily avant-garde solo piano compositions. The concept album “chronicles Dr. Smith's fantastic trip to an ancient Martian civilization and his observation of a great war and its aftermath.” The only works of Dr. Smith I was previously familiar with were his electro-acoustic experimentations and MIDI compositions, which he has been creating since the early 1990s. Overall, he has created over 700 compositions in his lifetime that range from a variety of styles. But War of the Martian Ghosts brings it back to his forte.
Perhaps it makes sense to dive into his biography a bit first. Charles Joseph Smith started playing piano from the age of eight and began writing his own compositions when he was ten years old. Dr. Smith has received multiple degrees in music composition including his Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2002. His doctoral thesis focused on a work by Franz Liszt, the Hungarian composer most famous for Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 and La Campanella. This influence is a good jumping off point when listening to Smith’s newest album, as the tempos, dynamics, and character of Liszt make their way into War of the Martian Ghosts.
He has attended the French Piano Institute in Paris and competed in a recital in Sicily and performed at the International Piano Master Class in Budapest. He has since performed, lectured, and attended classical music conferences all over the world, including Mainz, Germany, Frontingan and Ganges, France. Closer to home, he’s performed at the South Shore Cultural Center, the Fine Arts Building, and the Hartzell Memorial United Methodist Church in Chicago. Dr. Smith is also upfront with describing himself as an artist living with autism. He is currently working on an autobiography that details his life and struggles with this experience.
While I was familiar with some of the recordings Dr. Smith had made previously, I had no idea what to expect for the War of the Martian Ghosts, recently released on Sooper Records (Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, Not For You, Longface). I’m no expert on classical music and its derivations although I do have some familiarity with Liszt and Chopin and other Eastern European composers from the Romantic Period. Although I may lack the proper vocabulary to translate these sounds to words, there is a fantastic depth to this album. It is full of crescendos and tempo changes, key changes and arpeggios, dynamics, altered moods and a constant state of flux, of the unexpected; in a certain sense, listening to the album is my own exploring of an alien world. Further, it is an album that raises questions, primarily, what do we expect from DIY music in general? There always seems this need to be pushing forward, into the unknown, but rarely does the genre look beyond typical influences previous to the birth of rock and roll.
The album follows a storyline that can be followed in the composition titles as much as the pieces themselves. It begins with “Final Descent,” a cautious and curious introduction to what lies ahead. “An Unusual Welcome Parade” sets a more ominous tone with arpeggiated piano chords and varying tempos. Stark and dissonant chords are sustained throughout the “Council of Elders.” There is then the “March to War,” a short piece reminiscent of Chopin’s preludes. “War Of The Martian Ghosts” introduces more jarring and jazzlike rhythms and chords and a brooding synth underscores “The Aftermath.”
Major-chord progressions and melodies return in the “Flourishing Cities of the Undead.” But that may only be a short-lived reprieve. After the brief “Recapitulation” is “Dissonance of Being,” as the title implies, dismantles expected musical forms and tropes, with chaotic staccato key-smashing across the full length of the ivories, and despite all the seeming chaos building up to go somewhere, ends abruptly. As with any war, the listener is left only with more questions than answers. If it was a war of ghosts, were there previous wars? Do the dead ghosts of the war transpire into another form? What does one do after the war? What can one do?