2017-07-11 00:13:42 UTC
Paul Zukofsky, Prodigy Who Became, Uneasily, a Virtuoso Violinist, Dies at
By MARGALIT FOX
There was something unsettling about the 13-year-old violinist as he
made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1956.
"Never once did his face break into a smile or a shadow of any
emotion cross it," Harold C. Schonberg, reviewing the concert, wrote
in The New York Times. "One had the uncomfortable feeling that a
little automaton was on stage."
That stoic youth, Paul Zukofsky, would grow up to be one of the
finest violinists of his time, renowned as an interpreter of
contemporary music. But to the end of his life, Mr. Zukofsky, who
died in Hong Kong on June 6, at 73, would retain much of the stance
he displayed at 13, seemingly deeply ill at ease with the world.
His career trajectory, with its early triumphs and later ruptures,
is an object lesson in the social realities faced by some former
child prodigies, whose emotional development can be sacrificed to
professional prowess. It also illuminates the difficulties faced by
some children of eminent parents.
It was Paul Zukofsky's fate to have belonged to both of those
In adult life, Mr. Zukofsky was known to aficionados as an ardent
champion of composers including Philip Glass, John Cage, Milton
Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen.
He was also known to literary scholars as an ardent defender--too
ardent, some said--of the intellectual property of his father, the
American poet Louis Zukofsky.
"He really is in terribly bad odor with academics," Mark Scroggins,
the author of "The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky"
(2007), said by telephone last week. "He's just seen as the
arch-bridge troll of literary executors."
Until he stopped playing publicly about 20 years ago, Mr. Zukofsky
was widely praised for his dazzling technique, pitch-perfect
intonation and probing musical understanding.
"His thought about the music was really apparent in how he played
it," the pianist Ursula Oppens, a longtime friend and collaborator,
said. "The intention was clear: He was always thinking of what the
music was about."
A winner, in 1965, of the Young Concert Artists International
Auditions, Mr. Zukofsky was a soloist with major orchestras, gave
world premieres of many signal late-20th-century works, made five
dozen records and was nominated for three Grammys.
Writing in The Boston Globe in 1968, the critic Michael Steinberg
called him "the best-equipped violinist I know."
And yet--as interviews with his associates last week suggest, when
it came to Mr. Zukofsky there was almost always an "and yet"--he
remained largely a musician's musician. Over his half-century as a
performer, he was inarguably less well known to the general public
than the titans, like Isaac Stern, who had come before him, and
those, like Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, who came soon
It was Mr. Zukofsky's uncompromising principles, his supporters said
--or his unbridled hubris, according to his detractors--that
appeared to have cost him a wider career.
"He was an ingrained contrarian," said Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas, a
board member of Musical Observations, a nonprofit organization
devoted to recording and scholarship that Mr. Zukofsky founded in
The career of a high-wattage soloist demands not only prowess but
also politesse: pressing the flesh, dining with patrons, smiling at
audiences. Mr. Zukofsky, as time went on, seemed disinclined to do
"He just abandoned the traditional life of a concert artist," the
pianist Gilbert Kalish, a frequent collaborator in the 1960s and
'70s, said last week. "It was painful to see him disappear from our
concert life when he could have made an enormous contribution."
Mr. Zukofsky forsook that life partly by choice: In the last two
decades or so, Ms. Oppens said, the aches and pains of aging meant
that he could not comfortably play to his own exacting standards.
Setting aside a solo career also let him ply a second calling as a
conductor and scholar.
But Mr. Zukofsky's retreat also seemed to have resulted, associates
said, from the uneasy relationships that had defined his life from
earliest childhood. The chief difficulty appeared to lie in his
disdain for those less gifted than he--which, by definition, meant
very nearly everyone.
"He was always swift to run to judgment, was Paul," Peter
Quartermain, a literary scholar who has written on Louis Zukofsky,
said. "He was at times an extraordinarily offensive man."
Mr. Zukofsky's judgments extended to the very sound of his
"He despised the conventional idea of what was a beautiful violin
sound," Mr. Kalish said. "He was more or less a contemporary of
people like Zukerman and Perlman, and he scorned the beauty of their
The result, Mr. Kalish said, was a timbre, nearly unique to Mr.
Zukofsky, that stands as an apt metaphor for the man himself:
"astringent, but very pure."
But just as apt, Ms. Oppens said, was the fact that Mr. Zukofsky
"could also play so tenderly, one could hardly believe it."
To those who understood him deeply, Mr. Kalish said, Mr. Zukofsky
was "very gentle and very kind and very warmhearted and very witty."
However, he added:
"To the outside world and even to peripheral people--producers of
recitals, stagehands, page-turners--he could be very meanspirited,
sarcastic, rather bitter. And that followed him throughout his
Mr. Zukofsky's stance also had a chilling effect on scholarship
relating to his father.
"I can't begin to enumerate for you the number of dissertations and
essays and articles and anthologies that over the years have been
scotched one way or another by his demands," Mr. Scroggins said.
Perhaps Mr. Zukofsky's contrarian contempt was inevitable:
Brilliant, exquisitely sensitive, famous before he was out of short
pants, he was reared in a household that was by all accounts
rarefied, coldblooded and centered almost exclusively on him.
The only child of Louis Zukofsky (1904-78) and the former Celia
Thaew, a composer, Paul Zukofsky was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 22,
1943. Louis was one of the fathers of the Objectivist movement,
which treated poems as abstract objects, pregnant with obscure
images and fragmented lines and phrases.
Paul took up the violin at 4, and at 7 became a pupil of the
renowned pedagogue Ivan Galamian. Around this time, his mother
obtained permission to home-school him--an unusual arrangement
then--and from then on his contact with other children was
The Zukofsky household was a singular milieu. Visitors might include
E. E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. At 11,
Paul stood on the lawn of St. Elizabeths Hospital, the Washington
psychiatric institution, and played Bach for his father's friend
Ezra Pound, a resident there.
But for all its luminosity, the Zukofskys' life seemed short on
warmth. Celia, who died in 1980, was, Mr. Scroggins said, "very
controlling, very efficient, very practical."
Her demeanor can be gleaned from the 1967 novel "Little," a roman à
clef by Louis Zukofsky about a violin prodigy. As he walks with his
mother along a Manhattan street, the child at the book's center
looks up at her and utters a single, plaintive word: "Mummy."
"In the Egyptian wing of the museum," the mother retorts with
Yet in real life, the shared musical gifts of mother and son
appeared to unite them against the father, who for all his poetic
genius was largely unmusical.
"They would both chastise him constantly, and they would give him no
respect or affection," Mr. Kalish, who knew the elder Zukofskys,
Paul earned a high school equivalency diploma at 13. By the time he
was 21 he had received a performance certificate, a bachelor's
degree and a master's degree from the Juilliard School, where his
teachers included the violinist Dorothy DeLay and the composers
Vincent Persichetti and Roger Sessions.
After making his Carnegie Hall debut in the 1956 recital, which
featured Bach, Hindemith and Shostakovich, he played there again at
15 and at 17. Reviews of all three concerts praised his technique
but faulted his lack of musical depth, a common failing of young
But within a few years, critics reported, the young Mr. Zukofsky had
developed a profound facility for musical interpretation.
"He has no superior among living string players," Mr. Steinberg
wrote in The Globe in 1965. "In intelligence, intellectual
penetration and musicianship, Zukofsky, who is barely into his 20s,
goes far in his accomplishments beyond those of most of the big-name
But what he had also developed, detractors noted, was an ample sense
of self-worth. "I'm arrogant enough to suspect that I have made
enemies," Mr. Zukofsky conceded in a profile in The Times Magazine
Objects of his disdain included musicians who cleaved to dead
masters like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart--"necrophiliacs," he
called them--though he played those composers himself.
They also included concertgoers. "Onstage, he made a habit of
scowling at his audience," Mr. Kalish recalled. "He would look at
them with utter contempt."
For some time, Mr. Zukofsky's career sustained itself on virtuosity
"You couldn't deny his brilliance," Mr. Kalish said. "He could take
any complex material and digest it: It was nothing to him. He didn't
feel like he had to practice, and in a way he didn't. Whereas I had
to do a lot of woodshedding and a lot of practicing."
Mr. Zukofsky's most esteemed work included the world premiere of Mr.
Glass's Violin Concerto No. 1; recordings of concertos by Sessions
and William Schuman that are considered among the finest of
contemporary music ever made; a recording, with Ms. Oppens, of music
by Morton Feldman and Artur Schnabel; and an album, with Mr. Kalish,
of works by Mr. Glass, Cage, Stefan Wolpe and others.
But over time, engagements abated.
"Out of the brilliance of his talent, he obtained many positions,"
Mr. Kalish said. "One by one, he lost all of those positions."
Institutions for which Mr. Zukofsky worked over the years include
Juilliard; the State University of New York at Stony Brook; the
Colonial Symphony of Madison, N.J., which he conducted; the Youth
Orchestra of Iceland, which he founded; the Museum of Modern Art,
for which he oversaw the Summergarden concert series; and the Arnold
Schoenberg Institute at the University of Southern California, which
While some old colleagues, like Ms. Oppens, remained loyal, others,
like Mr. Kalish, drifted away.
"After a while, it was difficult for me to be associated with this
man who treated people often so scornfully," he said.
Such behavior also colored Mr. Zukofsky's guardianship of his
father's copyright. He denied some scholars the right to quote from
Louis Zukofsky's writings altogether. He granted others permission
in exchange for payment--an unorthodox demand.
"I don't think Paul knew anything at all about the academic world,"
Mr. Quartermain said. "He was convinced that we were all busy making
money on his father's writings."
In 2009, in an act that engendered astonishment and rage among
scholars, Mr. Zukofsky escalated prevailing tensions by posting a
manifesto on Z-site, the official online companion to Louis
Zukofsky's work. His manifesto--since removed--included these
o "You may not use LZ's words as you see fit, as if you owned them,
while you hide behind the rubric of 'fair use.' "
o "For your own well-being, I urge you to not work on Louis
Zukofsky, and prefer that you do not. Working on LZ will be far more
trouble than it is worth."
o "One line you may not cross i.e. never never ever tell me that
your work is to be valued by me because it promotes my father. Doing
that will earn my lifelong permanent enmity."
Mr. Zukofsky made securing permission to quote his father so
difficult, Mr. Quartermain said, that "I know of people who simply
gave up" on Louis Zukofsky scholarship, "and one or two people who
gave up on their academic careers, because they could not get
anywhere: They'd done their Ph.D.'s and they wanted to publish, but
they'd somehow offended Paul."
And yet--for here again is the "and yet"--Mr. Zukofsky was also
a vital force in keeping much of his father's work in print, a fact
even his detractors acknowledge.
Mr. Zukofsky, who loved sojourning in Asia, settled in Hong Kong in
2009 and afterward led the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble. His death
there, from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, was announced by Musical
His recent conducting work includes music by the Japanese composer
Jo Kondo, scheduled to be released this year on Mr. Zukofsky's
record label, CP^2.
Mr. Zukofsky leaves no immediate survivors. Louis Zukofsky's
copyrights will now be administered by the board of Musical
Observations, Paul's executor, Maggie Van Norstrand, said last week.
For scholars, the shift may be a hopeful sign. "We are going to be
changing the rules," Ms. Van Norstrand said, and "not necessarily be
In the end, the father's work seems destined to endure, as will the
son's. Complex, abstract, often difficult, both men's output can
feel astringent at times.
And yet, when all is considered, it is also extremely pure and