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Interview with Michael Gettel, January 2022
Interview with Michael Gettel, image 1
After a break of more than 20 years, pianist/composer Michael Gettel is making a comeback with his new solo piano album, The View From Here, scheduled to drop on February 11, 2022. One of the Narada record label's top artists in the 1990s, Michael recorded twelve albums before going on hiatus in 2001. A music teacher for 36 years at two different private schools - one in Colorado and one in Seattle, WA - Michael and his wife, pianist/composer Elizabeth Naccarato, moved to back to a small community in Colorado about five years ago and have established a non-profit there to provide music lessons for kids in the area who can't otherwise afford lessons. Michael approached me in late 2021 to review two singles from The View From Here in December and January, and then the full album in February. It has been a delight to become reacquainted with Michael's older music as well as his new album, which could be his best yet. Getting acquainted with Michael himself has been even more fun and inspirational, so enjoy this interview we did via email in January 2022.

KP: Hey Michael! Thanks for doing this interview! How are things in Colorado today?
MG: Hello, dear Kathy! Everyday is a great day in Colorado! How many days of sun do you get???

KP: Probably more than you think! We do get a lot of rain, but when the sun comes out and the sky clears, it's spectacular on the Oregon Coast! I always say that living here keeps you "in the moment" because you never know what the weather is going to do next!

Your first album in more than 20 years will be released on February 11, 2022 and is called The View From Here. If I'm counting correctly, it will be your "lucky" 13th album. How does it feel after such a long hiatus?

MG: It feels so very rewarding!  I am excited to jump back in the pool after a long ‘vacation’! 

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Click on the album cover to go
to Kathy's review.
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KP: I know your many longtime fans are going to be so excited by your new music, and I'm sure you'll gain a whole new set of fans as well. I really love the album!

MG: Thanks, Kathy! I know how many reviews and interviews you do at Mainly Piano. It means a lot to me to have your support!

KP: Your first independently-released album was solo piano, but did you do any solo piano albums while you were with the Narada label? I don't remember any.

MG: No. My first release, San Juan Suite, was actually the only solo piano album I had recorded up to this point. The View From Here is the second. I did record several new piano tracks for Winter (1997), but there were also previous acoustic ensemble pieces that were included on that album.

KP: You have mentioned that the title, The View From Here, has a double meaning. Can you explain that?

MG: Most of my listeners are probably aware that song and album titles are very important to my composing process. In fact, most of my work begins with a title. The View From Here draws huge inspiration from natural landscapes and my personal interactions with them. At the same time, the title is a metaphor for, “this is where I am.”

KP: I was fascinated to learn that this was the first album where you wrote the music out by hand first - pencil to manuscript paper - and then recorded it. How did that go?

MG: This was really a crazy development for me!  Initially I had no intention of approaching these pieces that way, but I wanted to have handwritten manuscripts. I have always written out lead sheets for other musicians, of course, but I have never written out a solo piano piece note-for-note before! It was an incredibly cathartic experience, and I will always approach my composing this way in the future. To me, it was very much how a serious artist might approach a blank canvas, going back and adding nuances and new ‘colors’ to my voicings. None of these pieces were ‘composed’ before I started writing them out. I spent three weeks of April 2021 at my piano, 8 hours a day with a draft board, a bunch of pencils, an eraser (of course!), and a ruler. I didn’t even attempt to play any of the pieces until all 12 were written out. That’s when I realized I was going to have to rehearse them A LOT to be able to execute what I wrote down!

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KP: Interesting! Several of the tracks on the album include nature sounds - rushing water, birds, wind and a few others. Did you do those recordings, too?

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MG: My dear partner-in-crime for virtually all of my recordings is my Engineer, Frank Bry. He is absolutely brilliant at what he does, but in addition, he is a sound effects Pro, and goes by the name "The Recordist." The water elements are his, with the others coming from a BBC library. Frank has an amazing ability to create a very life-like sound, by layering other natural ambient sounds onto a 'stream',  for example, so the effect has a full 'environment.'

KP: It seems that a lot of your music has had strong influences from nature and natural surroundings. Your first album, San Juan Suite (1988), was inspired by summers spent in Washington State before you moved there. Tell us a bit about that.

MG: My ex-wife’s family lived in the Seattle area, and we would take the kids up for summer visits every year. The thing I especially looked forward to was boating in the San Juan Islands with my friend Mat. We would take a week and just cruise around the islands, fishing for Lingcod, beach combing, and ultimately getting so inspired that my album, San Juan Suite, was the outcome. Together, we created Sounding Records and released the album, which was a phenomenal success - especially in the Pacific Northwest. Before licensing the record to Miramar Productions, a Seattle record label, we sold several hundred thousand copies of San Juan Suite out of Mat’s garage! It was an amazing time for an indie artist like me!

KP: That's incredible! You moved back to a rural area in Colorado about five years ago and mentioned in another interview that if you can't write music there, you can't write music anywhere. What did you mean by that?

MG: Quite simply, there is inspiration every time I look out a window from our home. 14,000 foot peaks, incredible sunrises and sunsets, the landscape just oozes with stunning views. I am an Aspen tree freak, and from the little grove on our property, to complete mountain sides covered with them, every season, every change of light a million times a day brings a different perspective to what you see.

KP: Wow! I haven't spent much time in Colorado, but it sounds spectacular! 

In the long time between albums, did you continue to compose music, or did you take a break from that, too?

MG: I really took a break. Personally, I was really stunned by the demise of Narada; it hit me very hard. On top of that, the collaboration I recorded with my wife, Elizabeth Naccarato, called One Piano did not rise to either of our expectations in terms of sales or how it was marketed. It was depressing. I just felt I needed to step away from the whole thing until I could play just for 'me.' Of course, there were ideas, some of which birthed pieces on this new release, but I did not really seriously 'compose' until those three weeks in April I mentioned.

KP: Do you plan to do sheet music or a songbook for The View From Here?

MG: I would LOVE to make sheet music available, and I have every intention of doing so!

KP: Oh good! I can't wait! 

Let's talk about a few of the individual pieces on the album. What inspired you to compose "Oh, So Many Stars!"?

MG: In the winter, it is easy to spot the Milky Way from our back courtyard. The nights here are very dark with little human light pollution. It was a no brainer!  As I mentioned, if you can’t write music here….

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Click on covers for "Aerial" and "The Parting Glass"
to go to Kathy'reviews.

KP: "Odile's Garden" sounds like a heavenly place with the birds chirping and flowers blooming everywhere. What inspired that piece?

MG: Odile is a dear friend that I got to know in the early 2000’s while taking my Bush School students to France every other year. She was the person who arranged homestays for my students, and I would stay with her and her husband Francois. Their home is very old and built into a cliff in Tours (Loire Valley). It is a breathtaking place, and her gardens outside are stunning!  Hedges of roses, a frog pond, and TONS of flowers that I can’t name.  I knew if I ever released another album, I was going to write a piece about this space!

KP: What about "Stepping Stones Under Water"? That's really an intriguing title!

MG: Again, this title was inspired by another international trip with Bush School students. On the off year between traveling to France, I would take students to the UK, backpacking and hosteling from England all the way up to the Scottish Highlands. On our route up the island, I always stopped in Northern England’s Lake District for several days to let students acclimate and to hike the amazing fells and visit Wordworth’s Dove Cottage and his more prestigious home, Rydal Mount in Ambleside. The area is SO lush, especially in the spring. One year, we came upon stepping stones that allowed walkers to cross a river but had been completely submerged with the heavy rain, making it impossible to cross. It was such a great moment to capture in a song title!

KP: You say in the liner notes of the album that every sunset at your home is a "Van Gogh Sky." That makes me think of thick layers of swirling paint in vibrant colors. What made you think of the title?

MG: Between our stunningly beautiful mountains and the endless sky, it is a show for me every night! The colors change often because of the mountains to our East (Sangre de Cristos). In the winter when they are snow covered, the view is not to be believed!

KP: "The Parting Glass" is the first of two singles you released ahead of the release of the full album. What is that piece about?

MG: It is a much beloved traditional Scottish drinking song. Actually, both the Irish and the Scotts claim it, but since my genes are on the Scottish side of things, I’m going with that! It was actually widely popular prior to Robert Burns penning the poem, "Auld Lang Syne," which replaced it in Scotland.

KP: Interesting! Do you know what the title refers to?

MG: It roughly translates to “days gone by”…

KP: Pianist/composer Kelsey Lee Cate contributed a "third hand" on the track called "Rise." I know she is in the Seattle area. How did that collaboration come about?

MG: According to her Mom and Dad, Kelsey was born to San Juan Suite! She grew up listening to a lot of Michael Gettel, and as fate would have it, she grew into a very talented pianist herself. Having spent so much time listening, Kelsey picked out a lot of my songs by ear and included them in many of her live sets across Seattle. About five years ago, she reached out to me, and there was a wonderful connection. One thing led to another, and I met her for the very first time in the studio last October! Incidentally, Kels has a beautiful debut release out titled, Poiema. It is absolutely lovely, and you will be hearing more from her!

KP: I reviewed Kelsey's album last year and really enjoyed getting to know her a little bit. Here is the link to my review of Poiema.

Your last album was a duet album with your wife, pianist/composer Elizabeth Naccarato, called One Piano (2001), which is wonderful! I listened to it this afternoon and really enjoyed it!

MG: I love One Piano, and it is kind of a secret album, since many have not heard it! I loved the concept of two players, one piano, and the “he said-she said” dialog. Sadly, we did not have the best marketing behind it, although critics loved it. I hope anyone reading this will consider taking a listen!

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Michael and Kelsey Lee Cate in the studio. 10/2021

KP: Maybe I can work a review in sometime soon! Do you plan to do more projects together?

MG: That’s hard to say. Elizabeth has been following her own creative muse over the last few years. She released a lovely gem, Souvenir di Italia, in 2016 and is currently completing tracking on her new project, Southwest Stories, which I’ll be mixing with Frank in a few months.

KP: I'll look forward to hearing it!

Okay, let's back up and find out more about your earlier life. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

MG: I was born just outside of Washington, D.C. in Maryland, but grew up in Evergreen, CO. It was an incredible place and time to be a kid. We went skiing most weekends, and I backpacked with my Dad, and later with good friends every summer, on top of private lessons, Orchestra and Jazz band rehearsals, and of course, more private lessons!

KP: I've read that you started piano and trumpet lessons at the age of 8 and started composing in middle school. Did you learn a lot of classical music as a young student? What inspired you to start writing your own songs?

MG: I had amazing coaches all along my musical journey, and I am very grateful to each and every one, and to my parents who stopped at nothing to give my sister and me every creative outlet we wanted. I was raised on Classical music, and my piano coach, Phyllis Pieffer, tutored me through an amazing repertoire for many years. I did get to the point, however, where I started getting tired of simply playing other composers' work. Phyllis recognized this and really encouraged me to explore everything. I wrote cheesy pop songs, I arranged songs for a full jazz band when I was a sophomore, but my big development was composing and performing with Phyllis a sonata for two pianos which debuted at The Colorado State Piano Competition when I was a senior in HS.

KP: Wow! Did you participate in other music competitions?

MG: Every year! They always made me nervous, but I was very competitive. Always reaching for those 1+’s!

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Michael's publicity photo for Narada. 1997
KP: Where did you go to college? Major(s)? Degree(s)?

MG: I started at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA, but only stayed a year. Too far away from Colorado. I transferred to the University of Northern Colorado, which is still nationally respected for its school of music. There, I received a degree in Music Theory and Composition. Upon being hired to teach music for a private school after graduating, I was selected to study at The Klingenstein Institute, Columbia University, where I focused on the aesthetics of education.

KP: Making a living as a musician isn't easy - especially starting out! Did you teach only music and music-related classes?

MG: I knew what I wanted to do, but I had no grid as to how to become a professional composer. I knew I wanted to record my work, but that was a pipe dream that a lot of very capable people have. So, I fell into teaching to survive, initially, and that income was hardly enough to get by on. But, I found out, surprisingly, that I LOVED teaching and interacting with students, and I also realized that I was very good at it. I have always taught music, but I’ve also coached and been very involved in 'student life' type of activities, such as backpacking in the Southwest or traveling to Europe with my students. 

KP: Where have you taught? Do you still teach?

MG: Kent Denver School, an amazing place, was my first teaching position. I was there for 8 years, and was then recruited by The Bush School in Seattle, where I taught for 28 years (at the same time pursuing my recording career with Narada…). Upon moving back to Colorado, I taught at our local school in San Luis before retiring 2 years ago.

KP: I thought it was interesting that you started your recording career by selling cassettes of San Juan Suite out of your friend's garage and at various stores in the Seattle area. Tell us about that.

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Click on "20 Years of Narada Piano"
to go to Kathy's review.
MG: And we sold a lot of cassettes! It was just a magical time and I was in complete control of my creativity!  When the album was re-recorded for CD, things took off like a rocket and it really could have become a full-time job. I was playing nearly every weekend through the summers, playing at events in Seattle, doing concerts in the San Juan Islands. It was all very memorable and rewarding. That little record that just cost us $3,000.00 to produce just kept selling and selling….

KP: What made you want to move back to Colorado?

MG: Probably the same reason I returned after one year in college. I just missed my family, and I missed the landscape. As much  as I loved my time in Seattle, it really started to become tedious. Elizabeth had a hellacious commute to Tacoma where she was teaching at an Independent School, while I was commuting to Seattle….it just wasn’t sustainable, and we both knew we needed a change.

KP: Who are some of your favorite composers and musicians?

MG: SO many! I love Aaron Copland! Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, Steve Reich, Elton John, Loreena McKennitt, just to name a few. I actually met Aaron at Denver University in the mid-80s. It is a memory I will never forget!

KP: Tell us about your non-profit called San Luis Music.

MG: Both Elizabeth and I believe strongly in community service and making where you live a better place. San Luis is SO tiny that there are very few outlets for kids' creativity. Our goal has been to offer lessons and other opportunities for the youth of our community. The last two years have been very tough with COVID, however….

KP: I'm sure! Hopefully things are starting to improve!

Who and/or what do you consider to be major influences on your music?

MG: Several of the names I mentioned above are big influences. But, the other more important influences have been where and how I grew up, the family I was born into, and the faith I have.

KP: Are you doing any performing? Do you plan to tour to promote The View From Here? I know that the pandemic has really brought live music to a screeching halt.

MG: I am seriously considering doing some live shows if that can be arranged in some areas, more than likely on the West Coast. If anyone wants to pitch a venue, give me a holler!

KP: I'd sure love to have you play in my house concert series when that gets going again!

MG: Let’s put that on the calendar!

KP: You got it!

Did you do much performing back in the Narada days?

MG: A lot, but not always big venues, although there was some of that. I mostly had to perform solo because as my releases were getting progressively more orchestrated, recreating the sound was nearly impossible. Besides, I had a young family and a teaching career, and that meant more to me than touring extensively.

KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

MG: Gee….I hope listeners enjoy my new release, I hope listeners buy my new release, so I can release another new release!

KP: Is there anything else you'd like to "talk" about?

MG: Simply, thank you for asking such great questions and for your wonderful support!  It has been a complete pleasure sharing with you!

KP: Thanks so much, Michael! There are two very interesting video interviews with Michael on "Titans of Transition" from 2021: April 8, 2021 and October 26, 2021.
For more information about Michael Gettel and his music, be sure to visit his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
January 2022