Everyday Philosopher, Andrew Utschig: Music Conveys to Us the Self

“There is no criterion by which to recognize what is a color, except that it is one of our colors.” --Ludwig Wittgenstein

Everyone takes pictures now. Photography isn’t solely reserved for the unique among us who capture images that they feel give them a profound connection to the world. Today everything gets documented and thrown on the pile, but I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. Capturing small moments as they occur can spark retrieval cues to help us re-live our memories. Let’s face it; we need help recollecting certain past events. The common methodology favors the rediscovery of experiences through photos, while overlooking our connections to music, but I have found music to be a more effective tool in recalling the past more vividly.

 Johnston Ridge, photo by Andrew Utschig

Johnston Ridge, photo by Andrew Utschig

Recently, I took a 5-day excursion to the Pacific Northwest, and I drove up to Johnston Ridge to see Mt. St. Helens. I can recollect the basics of the trip from the 45-minute drive up from the Visitor Center to the view of the mountain itself, and I have photos to help jog my memory, but the photos leave an immense fragmentation as to the actual experience. Fortunately, as I was driving up the mountain, I streamed the entire self-titled album by Ryan Adams. Now when I hear the songs I like the most from that album, I remember exactly, to-the-letter what I was seeing and doing on that drive. For example, whenever I play the track “Trouble,” I remember details of the overpasses as I drove by the exits to Olympia; I can see the spot on the windshield where I was partially blinded by glare. I must have told the story about that trip to over a dozen people, but what I was feeling or seeing could not be explained and even if it could, who could understand it or find it interesting?

About a month ago, my friend Stan passed away. Stan expanded my musical tastes to a level that I couldn’t imagine. He owned a record store in my hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, and he would always make mixes for the tavern where we would hang out, watch Jeopardy and old Buster Keaton films. Hanging out in the tavern with Stan was a staple in my life for  approximately 5 years, and it was even longer for some of my other friends. Before he died, I could remember instances with him here or there, but everything meshed together so much that I couldn’t describe any single memory intimately. After he passed, we were able to unearth over 1200 tracks of music that he put together over those years, and we played them at our new hangout. As we listened to the music, I found that I could now recount conversations I had while Dwight Yoakam’s, “Thousand Miles From Nowhere” was playing; I could relive the bittersweet misery I felt listening to Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello’s “Toledo,” as this was the track Stan played for me when a relationship ended, and he had me in stitches that same night when he said Bacharach was “a motherfucker of a songwriter.”

 Photo from Stan's memorial service by Andrew Utschig

Photo from Stan's memorial service by Andrew Utschig

There’s an epistemological theory of John Locke’s that states that memories are what define the self because it is the recollection of events that establishes your identity. Many stages of my life can be traced back to a song I heard. I could go on to recount riding my bike on a pitch black trail at 3 a.m. while listening to the Pernice Brothers’, “My So-Called Celibate Life,” or where I was when I first heard Royal Fingerbowl’s “Blurry,” but it is impossible to describe my experiences accurately because they are mine; they are who I am, and everyone is different. You could hear the same songs and have little to no connection to them, and the songs you have experiences intertwined with might not have any effect on me. 

What separates people? I could stare at Mt. St. Helens and attempt to piece together my day by bringing up the photo of it, but I don’t need a photo when I hear “Trouble.” You will know what I’m talking about when you listen to an old album and re-experience your past. That is the real point: on remembering, the album is then yours and not mine.

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Andrew Utschig is an Everyday Philosopher and Provocateur from Appleton, Wisconsin. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and has published writings on music and the philosophy of science and religion.