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Paul Zukofsky, Virtuoso Violinist and Literary Executor, Dies at 73

It was Paul Zukofsky’s fate to have belonged to both of those groups.

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 after.

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 1970s.

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 those things.

“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 instrument.

“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 sound.”

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 life.”

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 limited.

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.


From left, Paul Zukofsky, Abbot Lee Ruskin and the composer Norman Lloyd at the Juilliard School in 1956.

The New York Times

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 unfeeling efficiency.

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, said.

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 virtuosos.

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 players.”

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 in 1969.

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 alone.

“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 he directed.

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 provisions:

• “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.’ ”

• “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.”

• “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 Observations.

His recent conducting work includes music by the Japanese composer Jo Kondo, scheduled to be released this year on Mr. Zukofsky’s record label, CP2.

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 totally restrictive.”

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 breathtakingly tender.

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