Bryan Parkhurst Honored by Society for Music Theory

November 9, 2018

Erich Burnett

Bryan Parkhurst
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones ’97

Article probing the work of theorist Schenker and philosopher Kant explores previously uncharted territory.

Bryan Parkhurst, an assistant professor in Oberlin Conservatory’s Division of Music Theory, has been presented the Emerging Scholar Award for 2018 by the Society for Music Theory .

The honor, given for Parkhurst’s article “Making a Virtue of Necessity: Schenker and Kantian Teleology ,” was announced at the group’s November meeting in San Antonio, where Parkhurst presented on the subject.

Long fascinated by the writing of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Parkhurst arrived at his subject while pursuing graduate degrees in music theory and philosophy at the University of Michigan.

“He’s one of the most difficult philosophers to understand,” says Parkhurst, who joined the Oberlin faculty in 2017. “His writing is very dense, and it has all sorts of philosophical jargon. It took me years to really feel like I understood it.”

Heinrich Schenker’s writing, meanwhile, suffuses the work of all music theorists. “It comes into play in various ways in every day of our teaching,” Parkhurst says. “In reading Schenker, I came to notice that there is a lot of Kant in there. And many of Schenker’s positions become clearer once you notice all the Kant in his thinking.

“There’s a lot of disagreement over what Schenker is saying and why he’s saying it. I found that it makes way more sense when you think of it in terms of Kant’s arguments. That’s essentially what I explored in my paper.”

Parkhurst conducted most of his research and writing while living not too far from the epicenter of Kant’s and Schenker’s work many years earlier: in an apartment above a discotheque in Düsseldorf, Germany. The resulting chapter was included in Parkhurst’s dissertation at Michigan in 2014; the final project was published in the Journal of Music Theory in 2017.

“The article itself is a little outside the mainstream of music theory work because it’s so philosophical,” Parkhurst says. “It was wonderful that the journal agreed to publish it in the first place, and then to have this panel of distinguished music theorists who thought its arguments were convincing. I was really gratified to win.”

SMT’s selection committee, likewise, was gratified to celebrate Parkhurst.

“This year’s Emerging Scholar Award in the category of Article honors an in-depth study of aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings of one of the most prominent theories of Western art music—Heinrich Schenker, a theorist about whom we thought we knew all there was to know,” the committee wrote.

“The article shows that nothing could be further from the truth. The article is a rigorous philosophical inquiry into the ideal of ‘musical science,’ which Eduard Hanslick had posited a generation earlier but which he had not pursued himself. The article gives flesh to Hanslick’s absolutism by adopting the doctrine of 'final causation' introduced by Immanuel Kant to grasp the structure of biological organisms. The organicism of Schenker’s theory is reflected, famously, in analytical graphs, which depict the musical work as a tissue of organically necessary contingencies—but the article shows that things are never quite as straightforward as they seem.”

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