The Award and the Archive | Erroll Garner Tuesdays Week Six

The following post is part of “Erroll Garner Tuesdays,” a semester-long blog series written by University of Pittsburgh music doctoral students in the seminar titled Music, Media, and the Archive: Jazz Collections of Pittsburgh. It was originally published by the University of Pittsburgh.

From Middle English, the term “award” finds its origins in the late 14th century. The Anglo-French award from this period is the definition often colloquially used: “decision after consideration” ( Lesser-known derivations come from the Old North French adwarder, or Old French adguarder. Respectively, these imply “to look at” or “to examine”, and to “resolve.” Deconstructing the Latin ad and the French warder and garder, the term implies to look after or to guard (Merriam Webster).


I open with the etymology of the word “award” not so much as a linguistics lesson, but as a representation for what the role of the awarded object, the award, does within the archive: change. When context is removed and the award is placed within the archive it achieves a state of malleability. At once, the award serves as an incomplete placeholder of memory, an attempt at containing an event, memory, or an achievement. The award attempts to rectify this incompleteness through its materiality. The size of the award; the use of wood, metal, stone, plastic; the award’s desire to be shown, framed, enshrined; all of these aspects of point to a call for visibility and durability. The award wants to be emblazoned on the mind—it wants to be permanent. Yet in the archive, the role of the award turns upon itself. While conferring that an event has taken place, it also becomes a reminder that an event has passed and the memory, reproduction, or complete understanding of that event can never be pure or whole.

An archive designates the system of relations between the unsaid and the said (Agamben). When an award is placed within this space of relations, its original context is threatened. The original moment of decision, the authoritative said, the pure memory, is lost and reproduced with a facsimile of the judgment: the award. The loss of context further infers a loss of original experience, that which can never be reproduced. As Walter Benjamin states:

     “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible, [but] even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space … The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.”  


What the archive does to the award is highlight the unsaid. By its placement and juxtaposition within a space created for memory, its original context is, paradoxically, further stripped. The unsaid becomes heightened.

In Garner’s case, the archive is saturated with awards illuminating two reoccurring tropes: pianist and Misty. Garner is reconstructed through these tropes in the archive; he becomes them. The saturation of the facsimiles of judgment creates a concentric dialogue inscribing a history whose context is removed. A narrative takes hold, but context is lost. There is incompleteness in this narrative. The question cannot help but be posed: what do the awards leave unsaid; beyond a pianist and Misty, who was Erroll Garner?


What does the award communicate? Does the act of bestowing an award not have its basis in a type of ritualized location of use value, or originality? Does the award not convey importance? Inclusion? Inscription? Isn’t the award an attempt to harness, authenticate, and achieve pure memory? Through this lens, what, then, is being guarded (adgarder) by the award? I posit two ideas here: 1) success is controlled by power; 2) success is measured by failure. Let us begin with the first.

Most often before an award is given, it is conferred. A process of deliberation occurs that renders a decision, a judgment. Through “consideration,” an award is bestowed upon an individual body or group of bodies as a means of inscribing value. The value of inscription in an award may range as a myriad of descriptors: First-Place, Best, In Recognition of, Achievement, Number One, Excellence, Winner, Outstanding, etc. What these descriptors share is an inscription of success by an exterior observer. I do not use the term “success” as a positive or negative in this instance, rather I utilize it as the recognition of one act above others. A type of violence is being enacted with this inscription. By inscribing success, a categorization of what is and what isn’t takes place. A hierarchy of belonging is constructed. Further, this dialectic of identity confers power upon the bestowing body; those that have the power to confirm success validate their own power. By the conferring of an award, the validation of power is being guarded. 


What is unsaid about this notion is that it necessitates the role of faultiness; failure is inherent. As Lisa Le Feuvre writes:

     “The paradox of failure is that one cannot set out to fail, because the evaluation process of success – as measured by failure – becomes irrelevant … failure becomes intrinsic to creating open systems and raising searching questions; without the doubt that failure invites, any situation becomes closed and in danger of becoming dogmatic.”


With this in mind, we may see imperfection contained within an award in multiple ways. An award fails to capture an original experience. The original act of conferring, the awarding of the award, is an authentic experience. The materiality of the award, however, only attempts to recreate this experience. It is a mere trace of the real. It offers an abortive attempt to freeze the moment of experience through its own existence, always failing in the process.

An award attempts to provide a negation to failure. However, it is dependent upon the latter. Success is dependent upon achievement, overcoming, and hierarchy. Through this lens, to succeed is to not fail. This is the unsaid of the award. When defined by an award, this not-failing becomes imbricated in a set of power relations constructed by the bestowing institution. The evaluation process, or the bestowing of inclusion, is based upon how little failing is involved. However, to avoid becoming fixed and immobile (not that many awards have avoided to fall into this trap), failure allows for openness and exploration. As Le Feuvre concludes above: “without the doubt that failure invites, any situation becomes closed and in danger of becoming dogmatic.” When placed within the archive, a location that embodies always unfinished qualities of memory, the award’s unsaid is able to speak; the incomplete nature of the object radiates.


- Jeff Weston
Doctoral Candidate, Composition and Music Theory, University of Pittsburgh