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EACH SPRING, Michael Gettel captains a trek to the canyons and plateaus of Utah and the American Southwest, leading a small contingent of students from the forested Northwest into a world of stark deserts, startling chasms and unfamiliar Indian cultures.

Although Gettel is a teacher, composer and recording artist, music does not as a rule play a part in these adventures. Yet in a way this year was an exception."They are very curious about what inspires me," Gettel admits. And this time his students - 10 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders from Seattle's independent Bush School participating in an educational rite of passage - got a glimpse into his creative process.

"Skywatching," Gettel's new album, has just been released on the Narada Equinox label. Its unifying musical theme is the desert Southwest. His young companions got to absorb for themselves scenes and settings that inspired tracks like "Sacred Site (in Ruins)," "Sipapu," "Windows and Walls," "Stillness-Scent of Rain," and the two highway-and-byway melodies opening and closing the collection, "Anasazi Roads" and "Where the Road Meets the Sky."

"I was excited to return and play this CD in places that had inspired me, and they were curious, too."

A favorite memory, he says, arose in Monument Valley, on the Utah-Arizona border. The travelers, after a five-day backpacking trip into Zion National Park, left Zion in the wee hours - at 3 in the morning.

"We are very early risers. . . . It goes well with an adolescent mentality," Gettel explains.

The evocative track "Tekohananae (To the Morning)" started as the sun began to rise over the Mittens and other dramatic formations in Navajoland.

"It was just quite amazing to go through Monument Valley and to see it happen," he says. As a bonus, the "Skywatching" booklet features a cover and several images by Arizona Highways photographers, and "I actually saw one of the places where one of them took a picture.

"It captured the moment."

PRESERVING moments, moods and feelings in music is Gettel's objective as a composer and artist.

"I try to share my experience, whether it's a place I've been or someone I've known," he explains. And the ethereal communication between musician and audience works most effectively when listeners are able to draw upon their own memories.

He strives to paint pictures - landscapes. "Skywatching" is filled with such images. Descriptive titles provide cues for melodies that are swept along by Gettel's piano, a bit of synthesizer and support by a cadre of fine musicians.

Gettel is really in the secondary role on "Windows and Walls," which features the beautiful oboe of Nancy Rumbel. "This piece, to me, captures the feeling of ruins on a hot summer afternoon," Gettel says. Anyone who's visited Chaco Canyon, Hovenweep or Mesa Verde will understand.

Guitarist Paul Speer adds an electric-energetic dimension to the gentler inclinations of "Sipapu" - a dynamic familiar to those who've heard the album "Desert Vision" by Speer and keyboardist David Lanz, or who've seen and heard the companion video, with its classic images of the Four Corners area. Lanz, too, joins Gettel for a delicate duet on "First Snow." Since the two are on the same recording label, Gettel envisions a duet album someday.

"That's one of my pipe dreams . . . a duet album with David Lanz, two different styles of piano playing. I'm working on it."

On his albums, Gettel says, he attempts "to capture the feeling, the smell, the sound - the whole environment - in one sort of eclectic statement . . . which is not always easy to do."

Sometimes he employs recorded sound effects - most notably on his first album, "San Juan Suite," about Washington's San Juan Islands, but also on "Skywatching" tracks like "Wellspring," with its trickling and flowing water. "The way that turned out was really fun," Gettel says.

"I really want to try to put a person in that place when they listen. I think the key to good `listening music' - and `listening music' can be instrumental or vocal - is a person will want to return to that record time and time again, not just once."

His memories may shape a melody, but Gettel composes and performs music he hopes will wrap itself around and infiltrate the memories of others.

BORN and reared in Evergreen, Colo., Gettel says he wasn't a city boy; the Continental Divide was just outside his bedroom window, and "I was raised in the hills . . . kind of."

Mountains, nature and Native American cultures, especially those of the Southwest, have fascinated him. The vanished Anasazi culture seems to have had an especially strong hold on his imagination since boyhood.

"The whole idea of walking through ruins that other people lived in very comfortably and very peacefully thousands of years previously just blew my mind," Gettel says.

Music, of course, was also a major preoccupation. Besides a mountain view, his bedroom included a piano, and at age 13, five years after he began taking piano and trumpet lessons, Gettel performed and toured with Colorado's Golden Symphony Orchestra. Further study took him to the Northwest and to New York.

Gettel played trumpet professionally for a while and ended up with a double degree in music theory and composition.

"I worked really hard to get that, then realized, much to my chagrin, `What am I going to do with that?' It's hard to make a living being a composer and a music theorist!"

Teaching, in Colorado and Washington, seemed a natural alternative. After a stint in Denver, he was drawn to Seattle and the Northwest, where he joined the Bush School faculty in 1988.

His solo musical career also took root in the mid-'80s, with the independently released "San Juan Suite" and "Intricate Balance," followed by "Return" and 1992's "Places in Time," which among other things explores Southwest themes in tracks like "Angel's Landing," "Zuni Rain" and "River Run."

His compositions are, broadly described, "acoustic music," he says, maybe new age, with a tinge of jazz. And while the sound is contemporary, Gettel recognizes that experimental and fusion artists like Paul Winter, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea were pioneers in this amorphous genre.

AS A TEACHER, Gettel strives to share more than just music with his students. "Even when I was living in Colorado, and working there as a teacher in an independent school, I took students to the Four Corners. That whole area just has a lot to offer, especially to city kids who very often - and this is a Seattle point of view - haven't seen that part of world before, who don't know what a horizon looks like. In Seattle we have the trees and the [PugetT Sound. It's almost overwhelming to them to be driving for two days to a place where they can actually see the curve of the Earth.

"There is a fascination with the Southwest, and many people share it. I think if you've been there, you know there's probably nowhere anywhere like it in the world," Gettel says. A walk or a hike in a national park underlines the universal appeal. On a trail in Bryce, he discovered he was only one talking in English.

But beyond nature's glories are the places he sees as special, even holy. That's what the Anasazi-inspired track "Sacred Site (in Ruins)" on "Skywatching" is all about.

"That's by far my favorite song on the album," Gettel says. "There's a dichotomy between what most people see as being sacred - a choir - and what others might think somewhat profane - a pagan site, the electric guitar. I'm a devout Christian, but I believe anything like that has to cross boundaries. This is truly sacred ground. Also, in a way there's a form of grief in the song - the ruins are all that remains of something that was very rich and active.

"The ruins, the contrast of colors - the orange and red rock and blue sky - oh, it's an amazing inspiration to be able to write about. And there's something mysterious about it, too," Gettel says.

The sensory effect is a challenge to capture in words, pictures - or music. Gettel tries valiantly in compositions like the peaceful "Stillness" and the subsequent "Scent of Rain." Moisture in the desert is magical. "You know what it smells like before a rainstorm: the smell of dry pine needles," he says. "And at Arches: the coolness of the shade, the dirt - even the rocks - have a smell to them."

The Southwest enthralls Michael Gettel.

"I come back every year, and plan to do so for the rest of my life," he says.