Grey Boats

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Proverbs 16:18

Ok, that’s an overdramatic and exaggerated account of yesterday, but it makes for a good opening, doesn’t it? While writing my entry for I Am Not Here, I realized that it was already the 19th!

I’ve had a few days this month where I struggled a little to find an idea, but on the whole, I haven’t experienced the same creative pressure that was present in other years. If I had to make a comparison, it’s been like what marathon runners describe when they’re in that middle section where the miles are just floating by. There’s effort, but not work.

  1. Grey Boats Ray Toler 2:03

Which is not to say that on any individual day there aren’t moments of frustration, but I’m still surprised to find myself already in the final stretch. I had a similar experience in 2017, but that was a year that was primarily instrumentals; I only sang on five tracks, including the cover day.

This year, I matched that number in the first six days, and have recorded vocals for 12 out of 20 songs. That’s been the biggest surprise.

All of this reflection must have triggered the whole haughty spirit thing, though, because I really struggled to write Grey Boats. Not the piece itself, that came out fairly quickly once it showed up. But getting to the point where I was relaxing into the piano took a lot of fighting, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

I wanted to go to bed. I didn’t feel anything. Nothing sounded right. The session started off with me having the idea that I would create an instrumental electronic coda to I Am Not Here in the same way that Divulsion served as a pseudo-introduction to Drinking It Down.

But nothing was clicking. The sounds were too harsh or too dull, the mood was always too fast or too slow, each part was demanding that it be the star, and it was a big muddy mess.

Adventures in the Comfort Zone

Ambient electronic has become a big comfort zone for me over the last several years, but it isn’t the “root” zone for me. That’s always been piano. My parents must have either been deaf in their 30s, or incredibly patient to put up with my improvisational, stream-of-consciousness noodlings that often went late into the night. Along the way, I developed some habits (or “styles” to put a more positive spin on it) that stay with me to this day. Certain chords, certain patterns, they all keep coming to the surface.

In the late 80s, while in college, one of my jobs was as to open and close a 500-seat theater that was used both for classes as well as arts department concerts, plays, and recitals. The last thing I did every night was clear the stage, position the grand piano center-stage and cover it, set the ghost light, and lock up. I typically locked the entry doors before doing anything else, and would take the opportunity to play a regularly-tuned 9’ Steinway concert grand for about an hour. It was just me, in a darkened theater, with a single bare light bulb on a pole illuminating the stage. Noodling heaven.

One night, however, I must have forgotten to lock the entry doors. After playing for about an hour, I looked up to find about twenty people scattered around in the seats. When I stopped and saw them, there was some light applause, I made an idiotic apology about my playing, then let everyone know that I had to lock up.

Everyone filtered out except for one person, a classmate and good friend of mine in the Theatre program. He stuck around while I finished closing the theater and said something that’s been with me to this day. “You listen to a lot of George Winston, don’t you?”


“George Winston.”

“Who’s that?”

“Are you serious?”


“Come with me.”

He had an apartment on campus and spent the next hour or two playing me George Winston tapes. Now, I’m not in any way comparing myself to George Winston – I still don’t understand how it’s physically possible for him to play what he plays – but the epiphany I had while listening was that all of my noodlings and styles and patterns were valid. Further, they might actually be enjoyed by people. I might actually have a kernel of talent for the style.

Amusingly, decades later, the same thing happened to me with ambient electronic, with the assumption this time being that I had listened to a lot of Boards of Canada. I’d at least heard the name before, but had never heard any of their music. I’ve since become as much of a Boards fan as I am a George Winston fan.

And so, as I struggled with this new composition, in the depths of frustration and despair, with the ambient electronic comfort zone providing no comfort, I retreated to my root zone and loaded up a piano. I played for about 20 minutes and had the idea that I would take the closing four notes from I Am Not Here and use those as the starting melody for a piano piece.

The final product is largely improvisational, and very much in line with what you might have heard if you wandered into a darkened theater in the late 80s. It’s not George Winston, but it’s pretty and sweet.

Production Notes

I am so in love with the Keyscape instrument from Spectrasonics. They’ve done a masterful job of capturing some beautiful instruments, and didn’t focus just on the perfect things. They captured character and flaws. There are the obvious choices, but there are also some instruments that I didn’t even know existed. It’s an amazing library.

When I started noodling on this piece, I had loaded up the pristine Yamaha concert grand. It was beautiful, as always, but didn’t really capture what was in my head. Next, I shifted to a stellar Fender Rhodes electric piano. Nope. That’s not it either.

The piano you hear in Grey Boats is a Wing & Sons upright built in 1900. It reminds me very much of the 1940s Gulbransen console piano that I played for most of my childhood. It’s not perfect. It makes noise. The hammers and dampers are in various states of repair. And it sounds like home.


  • Piano: Spectrasonics Keyscape

Next up: Trapped in the Ice

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