Brandon Say, who has been releasing instrumental music under the name Dasein since 2015, is a multi-instrumentalist based in San Francisco. Their music falls under the ambient techno and IDM umbrella. Dasein’s latest full-length album, “Nescient I,” was released on December 2. Its five track runtime is 45:43. Nescient I is only the beginning of an ambitious project entailing three additional long-form pieces.
“Nescient I (pt. I)” opens with a gentle crescendo that sonically resembles a plane lifting off, and which gives way to a rhythmic bell. At 1:33 an electronic beat comes in and tightens the reins on the up-till-then spacious, open, and atmospheric texture, but it does so without in any way overwhelming the deeply peaceful ambiance – one of many examples showcasing Say’s attentive mixing and production. At 1:54 a delayed electric guitar creeps in underneath the bell and follows its harmony and rhythm, adding another layer to the expanding texture, but its gain also allows for soft droning tones to linger on when it is not performing its melodic and harmonic functions. The guitar and bell tones blend together beautifully and can be hard to distinguish from one another when they are playing especially close in synchronicity and range as from 3:20 to 3:40. There are plenty of other exquisite moments on this track – little swirls, subtle effects, and quiet noises.
“Nescient I (pt. II)” continues seamlessly from where pt. I leaves off, and this uninterrupted continuity, which characterizes the whole album, allows listeners to inhabit or lose themselves in the long-form structure that Dasein intentionally abides by and which makes it feel unnatural to stop listening to after any one track, rather, the structure itself encourages one to listen to all of the tracks as a whole. On pt. II a mellow piano chord progression waxes into prominence as a guitar wanes out and at 0:20 a downtempo beat kicks in. At 0:52 what sounds like a reversed guitar softly instills a sense of motion like falling or walking backwards, which is a lovely juxtaposition to the forward-driven beat. At 1:50 a quiet synth hums to life and there’s a tiny breath when all of the sounds drop off together as this rhythmic synth, for the space of one second, punctures a hole in the void like a drum fill might, and by 1:54 everything comes back in – it’s a gorgeous moment but very subtle and in no way breaks the flow of the song but rather elevates it. A funky bass groove begins at 2:32 and by 3:00 it’s crescendoed into prominence while the warmth of a high shimmering synth dreamily contrasts to the dark of its counterparts low wobbling – their symbiosis lasts until 3:30 when things pick up again with a rhythmic guitar and an abundance of other textural synths and sounds.
The closer, “Nescient I (pt. V),” starts with an atmospheric build up of humming synths, delayed guitars, and sweeping background tones, which climaxes at 2:10 when a funky dance-beat breaks out and changes the atmosphere completely – where you were lost in a dreamy headspace and maybe swaying gently in your chair before, now you’ll be up on your feet and feeling the energy. It teems with texture from 2:10 for about seven minutes and not until 9:30 do things start to fade out and dissipate for the final two-minute outro. There’s little pauses throughout like the three-second break at 6:05, where mostly everything lapses into silence but returns in equal measure and force almost immediately. The repetitive groove of the electric guitar puts one in a hypnotic state of mind and allows oneself to become totally lost and immersed in the field of sound, yet it simultaneously maintains a dance-like energy.
Dasein takes inspiration from Sigur Ros, Johann Johannson, Stars of the Lid, STS9, Emancipator, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Fourtet, and Philip Glass, but we were particularly remind of Tycho. If you like any of those artists then chances are you will love Dasein!
1) Can you elaborate on Heidegger’s influence on this album? We’re curious to know more about the term ‘Nescient’ that derives from him.
His influence on my music is actually more of a broad one rather than a particular focus of this album. He coined the term “dasein”, which he uses to denote “that being for which Being itself is an issue”; in other words, human consciousness. His approach to philosophy is to study Being itself independent of our perceptions and experience. He felt that the traditional tools we use to understand the world and ourselves–such as language, conceptions of space and time, etc–are by their very nature limiting. So he developed a whole new model of thought and language in an effort to step outside the inherent subjectivity of dasein and discover the secrets of Being itself.
This influenced my music in a number of ways, the most obvious of which centers on this point regarding the limiting nature of language. By writing instrumental music and letting the instruments impart the language, I invite the listener to play more of an active role in the experience by creating their own meaning in the sound. In a less obvious way, I think his spirit of existential exploration made its way into my music as well. My hope is that these longform pieces can take listeners on a journey that is meaningful and specific to their own existence. Finally, what is perhaps most influential to me is what Heidegger achieved. He did something that no one had done before, that no one had ever even conceived of attempting. He innovated a method and a host of terms that did not previously exist, and in doing so led people to experience the written word in a way that was not possible before him. I wouldn’t dare say that I’ve accomplished anything even remotely on that level. But I do think my musical goals and approach are uncommon, and my works have a unique effect upon the listener. My ambition is to create music that can offer people something they cannot get anywhere else.
To answer your question about the term “Nescient”, it means lacking knowledge. The inspiration for this is the humility that comes from the process of aging; revealing just how little we can truly know about life itself, and underscoring the importance of those precious things we do know. At times this can be overwhelming, and at times pacifying. It can inspire both awe and strife, beauty and dissonance. It’s an essential part of what makes us human—what it means to embody dasein—and I’ve tried to capture that in this project.
2) How did moving from Charlotte, NC to San Francisco in 2019 impact your music?
This move marked a big transition for me. While a few of the main themes of the Nescient project were written in NC, undertaking this huge project required that I make changes in my set and setting. This is because it’s a very different approach than I’m used to taking. Prior to Nescient, my pieces were self-contained, continuous musical journeys flowing in a linear way from beginning (pt. I) to the end. Nescient, however, will be more like a vast landscape for the listener to explore, going where they please and experiencing themes in various ways. It will consist of four larger pieces entitled Nescient I (the subject of this review) through Nescient IV–each being a continuous journey broken up into parts, similar to my prior works–separated by numerous smaller interludes, all of which share themes but express them differently.
Beyond the structure, I think the move to CA also produced a noticeable tone shift in Nescient compared to my prior works. Interestingly, I found that the small amount I wrote in NC made more sense to me as my experience in CA unfurled. That’s a pattern I’ve seen before: my writing is usually a couple steps ahead of my life. Ultimately, the move changed me in a fundamental way, and that invariably ends up informing the music that I make.
3) How did you conceive of the Nescient project? And why did you decide on dividing it into four parts rather than more or less?
As with each of my projects, I didn’t have a solid conception of what I was doing when I started it. And that is true for the musical motifs, the personal influences that inspired it, and the ultimate structure of the finished product. I began with a single theme and a sense for the tone of the piece. As I started writing and recording, it became clear to me that it would not fit into one continuous narrative, as has been the case for my prior pieces. Rather, if those other works are analogous to a novel, Nescient is more like a group of novelas and short stories under a unifying theme. Once a handful of the songs within the project really started taking shape, I would listen back and allow them to show me what the influences were. That’s how I came to understand that the idea of “lacking knowledge” was central to its inspiration. As for the number of parts, that’s simply just the way things ended up working out. And I’m glad for that since it gives the whole project a nice symmetry, as the first and second halves will have very different tones.
4) Besides Heidegger, what other influences are there on this album? Or on your music more generally?
From a narrative and structural standpoint, some of my biggest influences include composers like Johann Johansson, Howard Shore, and James Horner. They taught me how to tell a story with themes and build a narrative over many movements of music (and how to make it beautiful, while you’re at it). In terms of style, tone, instrumentation, and technical performance I’m heavily influenced by STS9, Aphex Twin, Stars of the Lid, Sigur Ros, Boards of Canada, and Four Tet. Each created a truly unique aesthetic that is instantly recognizable as their own, and they did it in a way that is undeniable. This, to me, is one of the most admirable things an artist can do, and I think that’s because authenticity is fundamental to effective art.
5) What part has your training as a physician in pathology played in your music? Music and pathology seem like worlds apart, but are there any ways in which you bring one into the other?
Honestly I’d say they’re very distinct and don’t inform one another very much. But I’ve realized over the years that I am happiest when I have that balance between two very different and unrelated endeavors. I applied to medical school three years in a row before getting admitted, and I seriously questioned whether I should pursue music solely as a career, which had been my plan before going to college. At that time (around 2014) I was making my first piece as Dasein, which is entitled “Nebula Cycle”. I pushed myself to such extremes to create it, all while working in an Emergency Department and going to graduate school. That experience showed me that if I focused only on music, it would likely have a negative impact on my well-being. I just have a tendency to go too hard. Don’t get me wrong though, there have been plenty of trying times in my medical career that have made me question this decision. But in the end I think it serves me well from a mental and physical health perspective to have a career separate from music. Plus, it also takes the financial pressure off the music so that I can make decisions from a purely artistic standpoint, which is incredibly important to me.
6) How digital / analogue is your instrumentation? What gear do you use?
My instrumentation is actually quite analogue. All of the guitars (Studio Les Paul) and basses (Schecter diamond series) are of course recorded line-in. The keys (anything from rhodes to piano to synths) are either line-in or MIDI, but are always me playing either my 88-key Yamaha Motif or my Alesis Ion. As for the drums, I meticulously program them from scratch using a variety of plugins. My goal with each and every instrument, whether analogue or digital, is to imbue them with feeling. I don’t loop much because I feel that character comes from natural variation, even in the subtlest form. So if I do decide to loop something, then there is nearly always some other aspect of the sound that is changing so things never get stale. I think this is especially important in my music because the pieces are so long. I do my best to make it feel like each moment is evolving, and even when I return to a theme I want it to feel like new.
As for the other technical specs, I work in Ableton Live, and for the earlier works in 2014-2015, I used only their built-in audio effects. Starting in 2019 (when I finally had money to spend on it), I have been upgrading my software (and skill set) to include more professional third-party plugins. Both my 2019 piece “Come To Be” and my 2020 piece “Pacifica” use a mixture of Ableton’s audio effects and third-party plugins. But “Nescient I” contains only third-party plug-ins. Lastly, I use a Focusrite Clarett 2Pre Thunderbolt audio interface these days.
7) We’re really curious about your writing and recording process. What does it look like for you? And was most of “Nescient I” composed beforehand or improvised?
Most of my writing is based heavily on shaping improvisation into thoughtful form. I usually begin with a base track (usually guitar or keys) with at least one theme in mind, then allow myself to play for any length of time to see what comes out. In the case of “Nescient I”, I began with the central theme in part I on the rhodes (actually that was the first theme I came up with for the whole Nescient project), and much of the other material arose from improvisation. Once new ideas are on the page, I build on them. That’s the hard part. It’s a balance between letting the improvisation lead me to a new idea, then seizing that opportunity to create something absolutely necessary for the piece. This technique, however, leads to many dead ends and isn’t sufficient to complete a piece. The rest comes out of very detailed planning based on the emotional and musical needs of the project. And I am extremely picky about what stays in and what I scrap. In order for me to keep something, each moment should feel as though the song could not continue without it. If it doesn’t feel that way, I don’t keep it (which is sometimes difficult to act on). Once the outline of the piece is there, I spend the rest of the time producing the details that make it rich and come alive.
8) What’s your favourite track?
If I had to choose one I would probably go with Nescient I (pt. II) because I think it exhibits a nice variety of Dasein signatures that represent what I do pretty well. But that’s just the thing: no single track can carry the weight of the whole piece, and each one is better in the context of the others. This is why I think it’s best to treat it as one continuous journey. It’s the most immersive and effective way to experience my music, and I think that’s how listeners will get the most from it.
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