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Vocal Intersemioticity in James Chapman’s How Is This Going to Continue?

Vocalité intersémiotique dans How Is This Going to Continue? de James Chapman
Marcin Stawiarski


Cet article vise à interroger la notion de traversée intersémiotique par un examen des liens qui se tissent entre deux œuvres : le Requiem für einen jungen Dichter (Requiem pour un jeune poète, 1969) de Bernd Alois Zimmermann et le roman de James Chapman How Is This Going to Continue? (2007). Recourant à des emprunts formels à la musique de Zimmermann ainsi qu’à d’autres œuvres et à d’autres compositions, Chapman nous présente un texte fait de bribes intertextuelles et intersémiotiques. Nous avons affaire à des traces qui sont pour la plupart issues de performances vocales et qui construisent un réseau de voix absentes. La notion d’absence participe de la nature fragmentée de la vocalité telle qu’elle est représentée dans ce roman qui nous invite à méditer sur la mort et sur le deuil à travers son intersémioticité singulière. Cette présence/absence vocale participe de la nature hybride, poly-générique, et, d’une certaine manière, performative, de ce texte, qui constitue à la fois un hommage funèbre et une méditation sur la mort. Cette étude est centrée sur les traversées intertextuelles et intermédiales qui font la spécificité de ce roman. D’une part, cet article aborde la spécificité des traversées purement intermédiales de ce texte. D’autre part, il en étend l’analyse aux traversées intertextuelles qui interrogent la notion de voix. La confrontation agonistique des discours et des voix dans le roman de Chapman crée un système intertextuel et intersémiotique singulier et finit par suggérer une forme de performativité vocale.

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1The aim of this article is to consider what Roman Jakobson once described as “intersemiotic translation”—a form of transmutation of signs from one sign system to another (Jakobson 261)—through its application to the concept of voice in fiction. In this paper, such transmutation is illustrative of the idea of crossings as it takes the form of a system of intersemiotic transfers which weave together two works belonging to two traditionally distinct media: a musical composition, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Requiem für einen jungen Dichter (Requiem for a Young Poet, 1969), and a novel, James Chapman’s How Is This Going to Continue? (Chapman 2007). Chapman’s text draws on Zimmermann’s Requiem in order to come to terms with the idea of death. But, Zimmermann’s Requiem is, itself, founded on a sophisticated network of musical and literary sources. My analysis relies to a great extent on the concepts of intertextuality and intermediality. Since Chapman’s novel makes ample use of quotations borrowed from real vocal performances and their recordings, I wish to demonstrate that intersemioticity in this text is closely linked to the treatment of vocality as an intermedial and intertextual collage of fragments and scraps of vocal performances and literary works, which turn into a performative novel, as though to suggest a form of second and secondary performativity. Moreover, allusions to performances represent traces of voices, thus creating an intersemiotic construct of vocal absence. The fragmentary nature of such intersemiotic transfer is inscribed within the fundamental aspect of the novel—the text is at once a funeral tribute and a meditation on death, which constitutes the novel’s main theme. In other words, within the context of the intersemiotic transmutation, Zimmermann’s Requiem for a Young Poet is at once a tribute to the late singer Kathleen Ferrier and an intermedial inquiry into the nature of death.

2The first part of this article focuses on the specificity of the intermedial dimension of Chapman’s text. The main question is how the theme of death is supported by references to music. The second part goes on to investigate the notion of voice by concentrating on its specific intertextuality, which leads to a clash of discourses and exposes a multiple intersemiotic and intertextual work.

The voice of the dead and the living: the intermedial nature of the text

3The intersemiotic character of Chapman’s novel is obvious from the sheer materiality of the book. The novel presents the reader with a musical system of signs owing to its cover showing a musical score. By this token, it also engages with the visual. Shaped as an A-4 book in horizontal layout, in-plano, with a spiral-binding, instead of a traditionally stitched or sewn cover, it incites us to regard it as craft, like an artisan’s hand-made artifact, or an amateur’s notebook and a multimedia booklet:

Fig.1. Cover of Chapman’s How Is This Going to Continue?

With its yellowish cover, the book aspires to stand for a unique, precious and quasi-archeological find. Moreover, the novel is supposed to have come out in a limited, signed edition, mine being 26th out of 50. Hence, the notion of curious uniqueness lies at the heart of this highly vocal text.

4The idiosyncratic nature of the novel derives from its generic—intersemiotic—specificity as well. The genre of the work is clearly stated on the title-page, which suggests that we are reading “[t]he memoir of Eckhard Unruh’s final year as a musician, composed by him for narrators, prerecorded tapes, contralto and baritone soloists, two choirs, chamber orchestra, percussion orchestra, electronic and concrete sounds, electric ukulele, and pipe organ” (Chapman 3). However, in the back-cover blurb one finds a reference which makes it clear that the text is actually a novel. Therefore, multiple genres as well as the interplay of intermedial hybrids are evidently at stake here.

  • 1 An oratorio is usually defined as musical drama composed on religious subjects and rarely designed (...)
  • 2 Needless to say, the term can only evoke the musical divisions in instrumental music. See the defin (...)

5Furthermore, the intersemiotic hybridity is closely linked to the text’s display of a multi-layered narrative structure. It is a novel about a musician, but it is also a novel about music in general, and, even more interestingly, a novel created out of music, out of vocal scraps. Chapman’s novel can be divided into four parts: (a) the first part outlines the book’s project—it is a simple one-page introductory notice, stating that what follows is a compact edition of an oratorio1—its libretto, in fact; (b) the second part is a slightly longer text, i.e. a fake quote from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, presenting the composer’s biography, and providing some details as to the circumstances under which the work was composed; (c) the third part, the text proper, which spans over fifty pages, is divided into two sections, or two movements2 (“First the Wife”, “Then the Husband”); (d) finally, the ultimate pages of the text provide the sources and the references of which the text is made.

6In stark contrast to its structure, the novel’s story is extremely simple. A fictitious, eccentric composer, Unruh Eckhard Rabindranath, who has spent his life composing “exuberant” and “undesirable” works of art (Chapman 10), characterized as much by minimalism as by gigantism or plagiarism, decides to compose an oratorio following his wife’s demise. While his spouse died of breast cancer, Unruh himself suffers a series of strokes. The text proper of the novel is this oratorio, which simultaneously constitutes a requiem for and a tribute to Unruh’s deceased wife.

7Indeed, Chapman’s text is founded on the exploration of the theme of death, especially suicide, and the way in which it is articulated with the living. This motif is brought to prominence from the very beginning: the score-like cover of the novel has, in fact, two other layers of glassine-like semitransparent sheets. One gives the title in red characters, How Is This Going to Continue?; the other provides readers with a quote from Montaigne: “But thou diest not because thou art sicke: thou diest because thou art living. Death is able to kill thee without the helpe of any sicknesse” (Chapman 1). The cover thus announces the novel’s main theme as a playful aporia within the articulation of life and death through the ironic echo between Montaigne’s citation and the title, as if one notion literally erased the other. It is also already suggestive of multiple aesthetics, making the act of reading not merely the sheer turning of the pages or solely linear deciphering, but a gesture of peeling back layers and disentangling multiple intertextual and intersemiotic threads. The page that has been turned over does not simply disappear from view, but remains in one’s hands and is then grafted to all the other references that come into play. Like this cover, with its multiple palimpsest-like semi-transparency, the text is predicated on multifarious intermedial references to voices which keep piling up, intermingling and overlapping, building a network of crossings.

8While the text engages in a meditation on death, emphasis is placed on the condition of the human body, bound to disappear, which raises the question of the physical materiality of the voice. The body is shown to vanish through illness. Many of the fragments are steeped in stark depictions of the dying body: “one iron rod swished through the air and smashed into the skull, cracking it to bits. The legs twitched, one small hand abruptly clutched the air as if she were still alive” (Chapman 34). The text unrestrainedly exposes the decay and physical harm of that “flesh [which was] too filthy for the dogs to eat” (Chapman 27).

9By doing so, the novel highlights the question of the individual’s attempt to come to terms with pain or the loss of bodily faculties. This is clearly the case in the excerpt from an interview with the Czech composer, Bedřich Smetana, who suffered from deafness and mental disorders, and, in considering pain as a bodily function which issues a warning, raises this question: “Did my poor tiny wife really need to be warned for seven months?” (Chapman 42). Pain is also pondered in a philosophical meditation which refutes the idea of pain as evil and deems it to be “what is necessary to the production of happiness” (Chapman 35). Finally, André Malraux’s Lazarus, written during the writer’s stay in hospital while he was undergoing treatment for neural sickness, lies at the center of questions about suffering and death, so that the intersemiotic voice also partakes of those ultimate stages of utterance delivered by an agonizing body which is about to yield to the inexpressible. The paradox lies in the fact that even though the living voice inextricably depends on the body and can be wrecked by illness, it has no apparent materiality itself, so that it is already a spectral presence in itself. The voice is a perfect embodiment of an invisible, uncanny presence.

10The vision of the dying body is on a par with the issue of time. Chapman’s text depicts transitions and crossings, exposing death at the very moment when it overwhelms the individual. Death is considered at the point of its occurrence, as it is just about to happen. It is death in the middle of its advent, the unthinkable moment of ultimate transition. The voice is the voice of the dying or those condemned to die, as in Josef Suk’s or Frederick Delius’ “deathbed interview[s]” (Chapman 29) or Archimedes’ words reported just “as soldiers were killing him” (Chapman 39). There is, then, a kairos to death—the kairos of the moment of the crossing—as evidenced by a fictional quote from Tolstoy: “She was going to experience dying. She did not want to miss it” (Chapman 34). And this kairos is precisely what is unthinkable—the aporetic moment of transition, within which the body loses its grip on the world, and which is underlined by the quote from Delius: “This same mouth that makes these words now, is going to be dead in a matter of days” (Chapman 46). Death is hence the least thinkable of all crossings.

11Two forms of health conditions are placed at the forefront: cancer and stroke. Chapman’s text pits the feminine against the masculine not only by the bipartite division of the novel, but also within the very question of illness, since the feminine is mostly associated with cancer—especially through the figure of the female singer Kathleen Ferrier—, while the masculine translates into strokes or heart failures, attuned to the figure of the composer, the musician or the conductor. Ray Roberts comments on the stroke of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, and his death in 1982; Alexander Ivashkin speaks of the Soviet composer, Alfred Schnittke, who suffered several strokes before dying in 1998; Humphrey Burton focuses on the American conductor Leonard Bernstein, who died of a heart attack in 1990; the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who died of a stroke in 1979, is quoted in the text; so is the American musician John Hurt, who suffered a heart attack and passed away in 1966. Edward Elgar is quoted as saying “[T]he problem is, my wife predeceased me” (Chapman 39). Here, the prefix “pre-” undermines the pure subjectivity of the act of dying and intimates a meditation on death by means of the Self’s relationship with the Other, so that the book explores death within the dynamics of relationships, especially the healthy individual’s relation to the sick.

12Indeed, myriads of artist-characters within the novel may be arranged into groups, picturing the specific relationships between the dead and the living: Kathleen Ferrier and her interaction with Winifred Ferrier, John Barbirolli or Maurice Leonard; Virginia and Leonard Woolf; Gustav and Alma Mahler; Bedřich Smetana and his wife Bettina; Alfred Schnittke and his wife Irina. Thus, the notion of death arises out of the confrontation with the dying Other, creating meaning through externality and reciprocal mirroring. Josef Suk’s fictional quotation deals with the death of the composer’s wife—and Dvořák’s daughter, Otilie—at the very moment when he is dying himself: “While my wife, dying, listened to Bach, I heard her seconds being destroyed” (Chapman 29). It would seem that the trace of the Other’s death guides the subject through dying, recalling Charon and the mythical crossing to the realm of the dead, as though there was no conceiving of death beyond the present-absent relationship between the Self and the Other, and as though there was a need to get a grasp of one’s death through otherness.

13This is precisely the rationale behind the question of memory as trace. It comes to light either as loss of memory, as in Ivashkin’s commentary on Schnittke who, following his illness, had forgotten his Cello Concerto n°1, or through the question of forgetfulness as a self-erasing trace of the Self within the Other. In an obituary of Gustav Mahler, one reads: “We cannot see how any of his music can long survive him” (Chapman 44). The question of the trace of the voice chimes with the question of the persistence of the Self. “Will there be nothing left of me, absolutely nothing?” (Chapman 33), a voice asks in a poem by Rabindranath Tagore.

14But then, it is the intermedial context that largely contributes to the book’s exploration of this theme. The novel’s references are predominantly clues to musical compositions, and they, too, point to death—Schubert’s Die Winterreise, Mahler’s “Der Abschied” from Das Lied von der Erde, or Schönberg’s cantata, Gurrelieder, for instance. If the intersemiotic references are closely related to the novel’s thematic background, it is above all owing to the fact that they are vocal works—readable as texts and not scores—, so that they create evocations not only thanks to their musical potential, but also by a loop-like dynamics of intermediality, whereby the literary text comes into contact with the musical composition on the cusp of the very literariness of music, i.e. the text, the words, the lyrics, the libretto. In other words, textuality comes into contact with musicality through text. This brings to light a ricochet system, or a scalar system of intermediality, as though, by means of a knock-on effect, a work’s reference always led to yet another work or idea. For instance, the reference to the performance of Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata (Chapman 56) is symbolic in itself, as his last work, while the mention of his Symphony n°14 (Chapman 32) refers to a cycle of songs, all of which, in their turn, deal with death, mirroring the effect of a rhizome-like, loop-like, scalar intersemioticity on which Chapman’s novel is founded. Therefore, the intermedial reference to music is at one with its theme; the intersemiotic translation acquires meaning as a fully signifying element pertaining to a network of intersemiotic references revolving around a single idea that keeps multiplying and forking out.

  • 3 Orpheus is one of the founding myths related to the voice that, according to Marie-France Castarède (...)

15One example of such complex intersemiotic structure resides in the mentioning of mythology and myth-inspired opera. The theme of death is exposed as an inherited cultural discourse, handed down to us with tales or myths, such as those of Orpheus or Echo. It seems impossible not to relate the cultural implications of those mythical symbols—the voice of the dead as spectre (Orpheus) or the fragmentary voice (Echo)—to a tradition of intersemioticity which has long shaped Western musical culture, as in the two central references in Chapman’s novel: Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.3

16Consequently, the theme of death finds verification in subthemes of pain, time, memory, and the body, but it is also mirrored within the intermedial references. Intersemioticity brings us face to face with the logic of metonymic contiguity, or the necessary act of falling back on an ever-expanding, ever-fleeting otherness and absence. Intermediality itself seems as puzzling as the very question of absent voices. How is one to read a text which pretends to be a musical score? How is one to reconcile the crossings between textuality and vocality? How can one envisage music in a text or text in music? This is the paradoxical logic of the voice as a trace of (potential) performance and that of intersemioticity, both of which are tainted by this impossible, elusive otherness.

The intertextual clash of discourses

  • 4 Alma Mahler’s Memories and Letters, Virginia Woolf’s Diary, Glenn Gould’s Notebook, Maurice Leonard (...)
  • 5 Bernstein’s quotes dealing with Mahler, or the obituary of Gould hinting at the Requiem Mass: “At a (...)

17Chapman’s novel undoubtedly hints at the funeral homage, elements of which can be found—both in music and literature—in numerous poetic forms such as epicedium, threnody, requiem, lament, eulogy, tombeau, and so forth. The novel’s ambiguity when it comes to its genre—novel, oratorio, and memoir—provides the essential foundation for questions relating to the generic nature of the text itself, with reference to funeral discourse as lamentation, commemoration, or tribute. Some excerpts recall genres, which revolve around memoirs and biographies,4 while other fragments clearly underline the primacy of funeral homage.5 The voice appears here through the multitude of origins and leads to a clash of discourses.

  • 6 The text intimates its very transcendence through possible executions. The score being reduced, con (...)

18By and large, the generic instability is due to the novel’s highly intertextual nature. If intertextuality may be said to be at its highest, here, it is because the text is almost exclusively made of references and quotations. Dozens of citations are presented on the page in a specific and highly organized way, creating the illusion that they function as a musical score. There is certainly room for references accompanied by short excerpts. But, notably, there is also a zero degree of citation, in which the reference remains sheer reference, so that the textual quote becomes no more than a bibliographical entry, as in the listing of sources at the end of the book. However, a reference appearing within the text differs from those to be found at the end of the book, insofar as it is granted vocal specificity by its position within the fictional score—the way in which it is supposed, however virtually,6 to be voiced and sounded. Therefore, it is the (ever absent) voice—absence as the trace of the voice—that is meant to give the text its intertextual/intersemiotic status.

  • 7 Antoine Compagnon insists on the fact that an isolated citation is devoid of meaning as such and ne (...)
  • 8 Compagnon emphasizes the physical gesture of cutting and pasting as a fundamental literary experien (...)

19There is a form of coarseness or austerity to that isolated reference devoid of its context and the short citation isolated by the blank of the page.7 What shows through is the gesture of cutting and pasting, and the impact of the scissors, which underlines the materiality of intertextual collage, as was emphasized by Antoine Compagnon.8 The text seems to offer just a fore-taste of a larger whole, like the 19th-century thematic catalogues of music, which provided the beginnings of compositions (Escal 100). Therefore, there is a delusion of continuation; the impression of a call for resumption. From this angle, the structural metaphor is that of the list or the catalogue, but also that of the compilation, the compendium, the anthology, and all forms of entry-texts which are inimical to exhaustiveness and which are founded on condensation and abbreviation. The text becomes a compiler’s work, as in ancient chrestomathies and commonplace books (Miola 18), acting as a mirror of the 20th-century criticism of intertextuality itself, reminiscent of concepts such as Mikhail Bakhtin’s heteroglossia or Roland Barthes’ feuilleté du discours. It is as though the text’s structure were the mirror of that very critique aiming to place it in exposure or to literalize it. The text is a parodic distortion of any modern theory of the impossibility of univocity and the unavoidable necessity of polyphonic, dialogic ambiguity in all discourse.

  • 9 Mark McCutcheon insists on this tradition of collage, remixes and mash-ups (McCutcheon 79). The Fre (...)

20But perhaps the best metaphorical template for Chapman’s novel would be that of the extreme or virtually absolute intertextuality represented by the cento. Originally, from the word cento, meaning a “quilt, blanket, or curtain made of old garments stitched together” (Okáčová 1), the term suggests a patchwork structure, a “collage of different voices”.9 As a poetic mode, it is a peculiar genre, which highlights pure heteroglossia. When Marie Okáčová states that “the uniqueness of the cento consists in its absolute derivativeness” (Okáčová 1), she shows that it is a wholly derived and derivative piece, like Chapman’s novel.

  • 10 Defined as “a piece made up of different songs or fragments of songs thrown together often with the (...)

21The cento is illustrative of the multiplicity of voices and origins that, even though they are made to form one single piece, are irreducible to one another and may well contradict each other, its elements appearing in contrasts and oppositions. The multifarious origins are, somewhat paradoxically, brought together without the possibility of coalescing: “[t]he cento variously pays homage to, parodies, and/or perverts its source text” (McCutcheon 79). This is equally the logic of the quodlibet in music.10 These structural templates lay the foundation for envisaging the voice here as a non autonomous construct, as a set of fragmentary presences related to absent sources and as a network of vocal traces.

22At the kernel of Chapman’s mixture of voices lies hybridity. There are multiple forms of discourse, some being aphorisms, such as Emily Dickinson’s “Those-dying then” (Chapman 40), others interviews or medical statements. Schönberg’s celebration of death starkly contrasts with the lightness of dying in Hurt’s “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me”, or with the crude and objective “Report on a mastectomy” (Chapman 17). “The Boys in the Back Room”, sung by Marlene Dietrich, precedes a quote from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The pathetic and the lachrymose cohabit with the lighthearted. The Christian beliefs in transcendence and resurrection are undermined by nihilist opinions, as in the quote from Malraux’s Lazarus which questions the “lunatic metempsychosis of the West” by reminding readers that “[t]he dread of extinction is as meaningless as the dread of nonbirth” (Chapman 43). Some quotes are witty, others may leave one in utter bewilderment, such as this elevation of cancer to a life principle: “Philosophy does not retain the notion that nature is self-destructive […] we cannot hold the view that cancer has accidentally or purposely come into existence to destroy the body […] Cancer is not a blunder, but one of the wonders in nature” (Chapman 19). Therefore, the polyphonic nature of the text also appears as a hybrid association of discourses.

  • 11 This is all the more obvious, as the cento — traditionally understood as a frivolous, playful, mino (...)

23But then, by no means does the text attempt to suggest a dialectic synthesis of opinions or a holistic assimilation of voices. It does not lend itself to a synthesis of conflicting subjectivities. What is sought is a collision of voices. This is why the structural metaphor of the cento/quodlibet is operative as an extreme instance of—and thus, here too, almost a caricature of—heteroglossia. Okáčová suggests that the cento embodies the Derridean paradox of deconstruction.11 The emphasis on a clash of discourses, through the metaphorical pattern of the cento, helps us get a better grasp of the nature of voice traces in Chapman, for it lays bare an intertextual and intersemiotic form of agonistics. However, yet another formal metaphor is brought to bear on the novel—that of the funeral composition underlying Zimmerman’s Requiem for a Young Poet.

  • 12 It should be remembered that a requiem is but a template—the text of the Mass for the Dead, upon wh (...)
  • 13 It follows that the requiem lies in the context of the already long-standing tradition of tribute a (...)

24Indeed, by building on the tradition of the funeral genre of the requiem,12 the two works come to be closely entwined. The requiem tradition casts a new light on the trace of the voice by suggesting that through lamentation the voice becomes a shriek and that it is partly an act, insofar as it stems from a vow, that of a peaceful rest. Nevertheless, Zimmermann’s requiem does not entirely follow the traditional genre. Calling his requiem a lingual, Zimmermann toys with the idea of language and the tradition of commemoration. The figure of the poet, represented in the Requiem by the three writers who committed suicide—Vladimir Mayakovski, Sergei Esenin and Konrad Bayer to whom Chapman alludes—, transforms the work into a universal tribute to any poet.13

  • 14 The musical score was replaced by the text, so that its very intersemioticity was reduced. This giv (...)

25In fact, the structure of Chapman’s text is based on the programme established for the performance of Zimmerman’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall on 20 April 1999. The programme presented an English translation as well as a graphic approximation of Zimmermann’s Requiem, reliant on a form of condensation of the original work.14 Chapman’s text follows suit and states: “[w]e have therefore introduced some simplifying features into the apparatus of this version” (Chapman 7). Since the musical sign has been partly evacuated from the Carnegie Hall programme and from Chapman’s novel, they both constitute an intersemiotic transmutation of the original score—an over-score of sorts. There only remains a trace of the initial intersemioticity, namely time indications related to musical time and the part-layout indicating voice entries (left and right margins of the page). Chapman does not borrow Zimmermann’s divisions. The composer’s Requiem is divided into Prologue, Requiem I, Requiem II (with five subsections) and Dona Nobis Pacem, while Chapman’s is a two-part work. However, Chapman does reproduce the essential elements from the part-distribution in Zimmermann, as is visible in the following chart illustrating the analogy between the two works:

Fig.2. Comparison of part-distribution in Zimmermann and Chapman

  • 15 This mixture is reminiscent of earlier forms of spoken voice used in music, such as Schönberg’s spr (...)
  • 16 Zimmermann uses excerpts in Latin, German, Czech, English, Greek, Old Greek, Russian, Hungarian. Ch (...)
  • 17 Owing to the central role played by the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier.
  • 18 While Zimmermann literally resorts to sampling, Chapman’s text only evokes the technique. The act o (...)

26Though partly eliminated, the voice remains on the page as a trace, inasmuch as its presence remains visible in the use of tracks, as in the original musical score. Both works make use of performing groups (choirs, soloists, speakers, instrumental parts and 4-track audio-tapes), so that the suggested intersemioticity resides in intermingling (a) live sung or spoken voices and (b) recorded sung or spoken voices.15 Although Chapman does not resort to polyglotism, he follows in Zimmermann’s footsteps by intimating that the original composition included passages in several languages.16 The soprano voice is replaced by a contralto.17 Both works make use of intertextuality by resorting to a high degree of sampling and collage,18 and their intertextual patterns offer telling comparisons (see Fig.3 & 4)

Fig.3. Intertextual structure in Zimmermann

While some of the sources are used in both works, the overall structure, as far as the distribution of sound sources and voices is concerned, displays similar patterns. A network of correspondences and connections is thus created.

Fig.4. Intertextual structure in Chapman

27If Chapman’s novel brings to light multiple intermedial relationships, through its numerous references to music as well as its obvious link to Zimmermann’s Requiem and the 1999 Carnegie Hall performance, it also reveals a polymorphic intertextual dimension, owing to the networks of references it draws on and its allusions to the sources in Zimmermann’s composition.

28The analogies between Chapman’s novel and Zimmermann’s Requiem allow us to define intersemiotic crossing here as a sophisticated network which: (a) constitutes a cento-like compilation of quotations, a collage of sources, excerpts, references and samplings; (b) is formed as a response to a musical composition, thus an intermedial transmutation and source-imitation; (c) evinces a multiple intertextual construct, based on a ricochet-like system of intertextual layers—a form of intertextuality within intertextuality; (d) displays a multiple intersemiotic construct, related to Zimmermann’s and Chapman’s references to musical compositions. Consequently, intersemioticity involves at once intertextual network-building and intermedial cross-reference, which shows us something about crossings and crossovers. The work of the eccentric composer, Unruh, is made up of “musical quotes, speeches, songs, poetry, a trash-heap” (Chapman 11). The composer states that “all music can only be about previous music” (Chapman 52), so that it becomes “non-music” (Chapman 11). This idea of non-music characterizes the paradox of high intertextuality and intersemiotic translation here—Chapman’s novel is music without ever being able to become a musical composition unless the reader recreates it from its palimpsest-like fragments. It is this trash-heap of intersemiotic references that confronts us with fragments of meaning and traces of absent voices. Since those voices are clues to performances, the references appear not merely as a list of compositions to be read, but they seem to constitute a call for an intersemiotic interactivity, as if the reader were supposed to reassemble the fragments and bring this peculiar literary object to yet another level of transmutation, giving it a secondary performance. A sample of such a reconstruction of the text can be heard in this vocal collage.

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Zimmermann, Bernd Alois. Requiem for a Young Poet. Carnegie Hall Programme, 20 April 1999. English translation by Patrick Sharpe. Mainz: Schott’s Soehne, 1999. Online:
<>, last accessed 01 January 2016.

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Document annexe

  • Vocal Collage Kathleen Ferrier
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1 An oratorio is usually defined as musical drama composed on religious subjects and rarely designed to be performed. See Christophe Hardy (Hardy 437). The idea of oratorio does seem to be slightly paradoxical here given the lay nature of the novel’s reflection on death.

2 Needless to say, the term can only evoke the musical divisions in instrumental music. See the definition of “movement” in Hardy (Hardy 405).

3 Orpheus is one of the founding myths related to the voice that, according to Marie-France Castarède, has been perpetuated well into Western Christianity and its iconography (Castarède 39). See, also, the definition provided by Hardy (Hardy 444). Interestingly, while the myth of Echo annihilates the fullness of the voice, with Orpheus the subject is atomized and scattered since the figure of Eurydice turns into a spectre that can be contemplated as stars in the sky.

4 Alma Mahler’s Memories and Letters, Virginia Woolf’s Diary, Glenn Gould’s Notebook, Maurice Leonard’s Kathleen, or Winifred Ferrier’s The Life of Kathleen Ferrier.

5 Bernstein’s quotes dealing with Mahler, or the obituary of Gould hinting at the Requiem Mass: “At any rate, rest in peace Glenn Gould” (Chapman 45).

6 The text intimates its very transcendence through possible executions. The score being reduced, condensed, the mere reference acts in the same way as the scoreless mention of instrumental parts, implying that there exists some form of exteriority bound to complete the text. This is part of the intersemiotic delusion — trompe-l’œil, as it were — with which the text toys and with which we try to engage in this paper.

7 Antoine Compagnon insists on the fact that an isolated citation is devoid of meaning as such and needs its surrounding context (Compagnon 38).

8 Compagnon emphasizes the physical gesture of cutting and pasting as a fundamental literary experience (Compagnon 16). He wonders whether the pleasure derived from reading is actually that of an interactive bricolage, a game, or a do-it-yourself activity (Compagnon 17).

9 Mark McCutcheon insists on this tradition of collage, remixes and mash-ups (McCutcheon 79). The French Trésor de la langue française states the term dates back to the 4th century and defines it as a composition made up of fragments (“pièce composée de vers ou de fragments de vers d’origines diverses”).

10 Defined as “a piece made up of different songs or fragments of songs thrown together often with the apparent aim of making an incongruous and absurd mixture of texts” (Grout and Palisca 253). See Hardy as well (Hardy 492).

11 This is all the more obvious, as the cento — traditionally understood as a frivolous, playful, minor genre — undermines the themes of death and mourning, which Western traditions rarely play down as frivolous events. The cento, in other words, is clearly at odds with the Requiem Mass. The text thus contains a harbinger of its own deconstruction within the very use of multiple genres, which is not out of keeping with the polygeneric genesis of Zimmermann’s work and the ludic, avowed polygenericity of which Chapman’s fictional composer avails himself.

12 It should be remembered that a requiem is but a template—the text of the Mass for the Dead, upon which composers build their own music. The requiem, then, bears a specific intertextual and intersemiotic potential. The name derives from the first words of the Introit: requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine (“Grant them Eternal rest, O Lord”). A mass habitually comprises variable parts (Proper: Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion) and invariable parts (Ordinary: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). In a requiem, Gloria or Credo are omitted, but the Tract and Dies Irae are added. For more details, see Grout (Grout and Palisca 47-50), Michels (Michels 127), Chase (Chase 2), Hardy (Hardy 507).

13 It follows that the requiem lies in the context of the already long-standing tradition of tribute and non liturgical requiem, initiated in the 19th century and pursued by many 20th-century composers. Chapman’s text alludes not only to Mayakovski (Chapman 59) and Esenin (Chapman 58), but also to Zimmermann’s own suicide (Chapman 59).

14 The musical score was replaced by the text, so that its very intersemioticity was reduced. This gives the reader/audience the possibility of following the voices by identifying the sources and reading quotations in their entirety, whereas, in performance, they can appear as only partly audible conflicting fragments.

15 This mixture is reminiscent of earlier forms of spoken voice used in music, such as Schönberg’s sprechgesang and sprechstimme.

16 Zimmermann uses excerpts in Latin, German, Czech, English, Greek, Old Greek, Russian, Hungarian. Chapman’s novel suggests that the initial score incorporated excerpts in German, Greek, Czech, Hungarian, Mandarin Chinese, French, Italian, Bengali, Sindhi, Hindi, Kannada, Sanskrit, Sumerian, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, and English.

17 Owing to the central role played by the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier.

18 While Zimmermann literally resorts to sampling, Chapman’s text only evokes the technique. The act of carving up the voice and reusing scraps seems to bridge the gap between the tradition of the cento and the contemporary remix culture. Both are subversive and deconstructing practices. McCutcheon states that the cento “constitutes a kind of meta-genre that simultaneously, paradoxically subverts the principle of genre […] blurring the boundaries between primary and secondary cultural forms” (McCutcheon 86). For Navas the remix culture “developed in a social context that demanded for a term that encapsulated the act of taking not from the world but an archive of representations of the world. In this sense, sampling can only be conceived culturally as a meta-activity […]” (Navas 12).

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Table des illustrations

Légende Fig.1. Cover of Chapman’s How Is This Going to Continue?
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Légende Fig.2. Comparison of part-distribution in Zimmermann and Chapman
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Légende Fig.3. Intertextual structure in Zimmermann
Fichier image/png, 243k
Légende Fig.4. Intertextual structure in Chapman
Fichier image/png, 242k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Marcin Stawiarski, « Vocal Intersemioticity in James Chapman’s How Is This Going to Continue? », Polysèmes [En ligne], 16 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2016, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/polysemes.1454

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Marcin Stawiarski

Marcin Stawiarski est maître de conférences à l’Université de Caen Normandie (ERIBIA, EA 2610). Son domaine de spécialité concerne la représentation de la musique en littérature et tout particulièrement la question de la temporalité musicale en littérature. Il s’intéresse également aux problématiques narratologiques liées à l’intermédialité dans le roman anglophone et à l’œuvre de l’écrivain britannique Gabriel Josipovici sur lequel il a édité le recueil d’essais Critical Perspectives on Gabriel Josipovici ( Il a soutenu sa thèse de doctorat à l’Université de Poitiers en 2007 (Dynamiques temporelles de la musique dans le roman anglophone du XXe siècle : Conrad Aiken, Anthony Burgess, Gabriel Josipovici).

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