Russell Suereth (pronounced sue – reth) is a composer/ recording artist with a vision. In fact, many visions, which we’ll soon see. As the title of his third and latest release implies, expressing and fostering universal spirituality is motivating force in his life and his music. The sounds heard on Spiritual Haven are rich in imagery, often of sacred places around the world, as well as those within us. According to Russell, “I believe people all over the world need spiritual havens.” Of course some people find this in physical places such as churches, temples or sacred sites, but with the right mind-set it can also be in a car, on a couch, in your home or in an office. The most important aspect is that people from all nationalities, cultures and countries can find a sense of spirituality within them and feel safe to go there.”
Not surprisingly, Russell’s music features instrumental sounds from around the world. Although he started out playing guitar at a young age, he later became interested in possibilities offered by keyboards and synthesizers. Early influences included the seminal recordings of David Arkenstone, Patrick O’Hearn, David Lanz, and more in the 80’s and 90’s. Advances in technology over the years have made it possible for Russell and others to use synthesizers and samplers to add the sound and flavors of exotic instruments from diverse cultures as well as traditional Western orchestral instruments to their musical creations. This is something that Russell uses to full advantage to enhance the imagery that is so central to his compositions. As he described in an exclusive interview with Music and Media Focus: “To me, music is all about imagery, and my focus in the creation of this CD was to create imagery that took my listener beyond their everyday experience. I also wanted to connect to the vast stream of human existence that came before us, and in many ways that is our spirit that we have today, and that was alive ages ago. To make those happen I focused on ancient traditional instruments to set a tone, and then used more modern traditional instruments, and synthesizers to contrast old and new.”
Russell’s love of imagery is also found in his video series Music of Spiritual Places that centers on spiritual places around the globe with his music serving as the soundtrack to the images. These short videos are often about a minute long and serve as a respite and haven for viewers to turn to during their busy or stress-filled day. Some of the series images include the Mainri Snow Mountain Range in China where the highest peak is a sacred site for Tibetan Buddhists, the Siam Cultural Park in Thailand, the Santa Maria Church in the Spanish town of Wamba, and a terraced mountainside in the Incan Sacred Valley in Peru. The series, which has new videos added on a regular basis, can be found at: www.youtube.com/user/rsuereth/featured or accessed from his website.
So what are some of these special spaces that are explored in Spiritual Haven? The album begins with “A Magic Flight,” which Russell envisions as a journey much like an enchanted flying carpet ride, with the listeners having a feeling of themselves and their spirit rising above the landscape. The music alternates between rhythmic passages, sometimes propelled by harp-like arpeggios or hand drums, and more mystical sounding interludes. This was something I found characteristic of Russell’s compositions as they flow and evolve through a variety of movements and musical modes. From there, we move into track two, entitled “Distant Voices” which Russell describes in this way: “The song starts with night sounds of crickets and the wind. And a cello then appears setting a tone that is both deep and a little uneasy because, where are we really? How far away is the village, and what’s going on there? There are pauses in the music that provide a stillness that’s away from the instrumentation. In the stillness you hear the crickets nearby, and in the distance a dog barks while someone plays an ancient woodwind far away. Is it a distance of miles, or a distance of millennia?”
While many of the songs on the album are about external sacred places, some are about internal spaces. “Glimmer of Light” is one of these and reflects the idea of dealing with difficult life experiences and in turning to spirituality, one begins to see a solution or hope on the horizon. The music is rhythmic yet mellow, featuring the percussive sound of marimba, hand drums, and electronic beats, as well as layers of flute, strings, choir, ethereal female vocals, and more.
As mentioned, a diversity of world music sounds are featured on the album, such as the guzheng, a Chinese plucked zither found in the exotic mix of a track called “Swirling Spice.” And speaking of spices, other instrumental flavorings sprinkled throughout the recording that add cultural diversity are duduk (a double-reed woodwind-flute that originated in Armenia), koto (a Japanese zither), oud (a Mideast lute), krin (A West African log drum) and ethnic frame drums (animal-skin hand-drums from the native tribes of the Americas). One of my favorite esoteric sounds on “Nightingale Rushes,” is the hang drum, (pronounced as “hung”) which is described as “looking like a dented flying saucer,” and functions as both a rhythmic and melodic instrument. But characteristic ingredients in the album overall are Russell’s woodwind melodies and his unusual rhythmic patterns that sound Middle Eastern one moment and Pacific Rim-oriented the next.
One of my favorite tracks is “Red Moon Calling,” which opens with a yin-yang contrast of a spacey synthesizer sound juxtaposed with the earthy tones of a marimba. Another detail I appreciated on this song is Russell’s use of electronic beats. While these can sometimes be relentless and overpowering in contemporary music, here they are implemented judiciously and spaciously, interlocking with other rhythmic elements to provide one of the coolest grooves on the album. Spiritual Haven draws to a fitting close with “The Village Breathes,” a sonic collage that reverberates with the sounds of life.
A technical note about this recording is that it was mastered by award winning recording engineer Tom Eaton, who works regularly with Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman at his iconic Imaginary Roads Studios. The album also features production assistance from noted music reviewer Keith Hannaleck. Russell Suereth is a talented and evolving instrumentalist and composer. I particularly appreciate his flair for arranging in the way he weaves together the many and varied threads of his musical tapestries in interesting and often unexpected ways. But what stands out to me most about Russell is that he is a storyteller. Each song tells a tale that can evoke imagery in the mind’s eye of the listener. To elaborate on this, I’ll leave the final words to Russell himself, who shares: ‘With my music and visual imagery I am trying to promote the spiritual perspective of the planet. I am trying to create a musical environment where people can go to explore their spirituality, which, for humans, is one of our most important pursuits. My goal was also to create a story for my listeners, so as they go through the tracks they travel a path, and in the end find themselves in a place that is far different from where they began.”