Death of an important American violinist, 73

Death of an important American violinist, 73


norman lebrecht

June 12, 2017

Paul Zukofsky, one of the most intelligent soloists on the US scene and perhaps the most challenging, died on June 6 in Hong Kong, aged 73. The cause was non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

A Galamian student at Juilliard, Paul Zukofsky made his Carnegie Hall debut in a Mozart concerto, aged nine. He went on to apply himself to new music, working closely with John Cage, Elliott Carter and the minimalists. He gave the world premiere of Philip Glass’s violin concerto and appeared in the role of Einstein in Einstein on the Beach. 

He made at least 60 recordings, almost all of modern music. Among other composers in his portfolio were Milton Babbitt, George Crumb, Morton Feldman, Ralph Shapey, Charles Wuorinen and Iannis Xenakis. He also taught at Julliard and elsewhere, greatly encouraging many young violinists.

In the early 1990s, Paul was head of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute when the University of Southern California decided to throw it off the campus. Paul assisted in the process by which the Schoenberg Nachlass was transferred to Vienna. He was also the custodian of the works of his own father, the poet Louis Zukofsky.


  • Nick Eanet says:

    Paul was one of those musicians who made an impression. He saw things from a unique perspective. He had a large influence on me and how I approach any piece of music.

    I remember once he was asked why he plays contemporary music, and he replied that he doesn’t play contemporary music, he plays good music. I always loved that answer.

    He was responsible for many of my most special musical memories. One that stands out is performing Cage’s string quartet outside in the sculpture garden at MOMA when he was running the series. Cage was in attendance and I spent an hour with him before the performance – it generated an extremely inspired reading. He died the next morning. Paul made that experience possible for me.

    Paul may have been an acquired taste with his sharp dry wit, unique look (army short hair and the same utilitarian outfit day after day), and grumpy look but he was a very special character and inspired so many musicians he came into contact with at Juilliard and elsewhere.

    He shall be missed. Please raise a glass of Gammel Dansk and have a toast to a special musician and mentor. RIP

    • Sonia Lee says:

      You were one of his most favorite violinists. I will never forget teaching in Iceland with you, Noah and Paul. One of the highlights of my Juilliard experience!

    • Sreve Moran says:

      Absolutely, Nick! I remember when he coached us in our short-lived Hindemith Octet while we were in school together and such an acute mind and ear I had never before experienced nor do I expect to anytime in the future. This man was an artistic giant and he will be sorely missed. The world of art is immensely worse off due to this great artist’s passing. :’-(

    • Craig Pepples says:

      We are organizing a memorial concert for Paul with a 2-piano program he designed shortly before his death. The event will be at 7:30 on Oct 12 at CUNY Grad Center on Fifth Ave and 34th – welcome all to join!

  • Anne says:

    Paul coached my piano trio at Juilliard. RIP.

  • Imandavis says:

    My first concert with the Juilliard orchestra was with Paul conducting Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie. I still remember fondly that experience and what an impressive musician he was. He was so clear and had amazing tempo memory!

  • Odin Rathnam says:

    I have the fondest memories of Paul, who played in a quartet with my late Uncle, Anker Buch, during their time with Mr. Galamian, and who led the Juilliard Orchestra on several occasions during my studies there.
    Nick Eanet has already written eloquently of Paul’s sharp wit, probing mind and uncompromising devotion to “good music”, so I will just add that he was an important catylist in opening my mind and ears to a much broader range of possibility, compositionally and aeshetically. For that I will always be grateful. R.I.P. Maestro.

  • Bob Ludwig says:

    In July 1981 I was privileged to be with John Cage as I recorded Paul playing his “Freeman Etudes I-VIII” at a studio in Port Jefferson, NY where Paul was living. I don’t think Book 2 had been finished yet. An incredibly difficult work, on the border of impossible to play, John would continually tell Paul “your mistakes are more beautiful than what I wrote!”

  • Alecia Lawyer says:

    Performing with Paul was a formative experience for me. Unique collaborations at MOMA, a stellar interpretation of Turangalîla, and his one unique flair make him a stand out in my checkered Juilliard/classical music past.

  • Stephen Dankner says:

    He was in Gustav Reese’s class at Juilliard with Joseph Kalichstein and myself in 1969. A great violinist possessed by a powerful personality and temperament.

  • Gene Gaudette says:

    Sixty recordings, almost all of modern music. Zukofsky recorded the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas in the 1970s, released on vinyl by Vanguard and on CD by his own label, CP2.

  • Rod Mathews says:

    One of my favorite musical memories is a trip to Iceland in December to play Messaien’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. Paul was conducting and he invited a few of us from Juilliard to play in the orchestra. (Nick Eanet was also on that trip – Hi, Nick!) Paul continually passed along nuggets of wisdom and unique ways to consider the world around us. He approached everything in a very independent way and was totally authentic, and I always admired that about him. RIP Paul, you did it right.

  • Avro Lancaster says:

    In the late 80s, Zukofsky also championed and gave first performances and recordings of the most important Icelandic composer, the unplayed and quite misunderstood Jon Leifs.

  • Darrragh Morgan says:

    Many great comments here about Paul. I first met him in Aldeburgh in the mid 90’s working on Schoenberg Chamber Symphony and stayed in touch ever since. When he firsr introduced his company to me he said
    “Musical Observations Incorporated, because I observe, but also M…..O…I moi!” I’m so lucky he sent me so many of his great recordings fantastic Schnabel as well as Glass Feldman Bach Paganini and countless other gems

  • Su-a Lee says:

    Zukofsky was one the biggest influences of my life at Juilliard. In my first year I was lucky enough to play Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète under his baton… and on the strength of that he gave me many wonderful playing opportunities, including taking me to Iceland to coach the Iceland Youth Orchestra for the next three years, three times a year.
    Of that was born a love of coaching youth orchestras, a love of the Icelandic people and country, and a real insight into this genius of a man.

    I love Nick’s description of him, and can only add that I will always be able to hear his voice… He always slightly mumbled, had razor-sharp wit and insight, loved the pregnant pause for effect, enjoyed being grumpy, but allowed himself to chuckle.

    Although he embraced all things new in music, he was a creature of somewhat extreme habit ; always stayed in the exact same room in the same hotel (in Iceland)… always wore the same “uniform” of neutral colours.

    Appearances were deceptive though. He looked pale and generally walked with a shuffle, but his presence was anything but!

    He was a font of knowledge and a formidable musician…a real tower of strength, innovation and inspiration. He will never be forgotten.

  • Roxan says:

    I wasn’t online very much yesterday and just learned of Paul’s passing. Funny, I was just talking about him the other day, telling a friend how much I’d loved him as one of the educating personalities at Juilliard! I was lucky enough to play MOMA garden concerts with Paul (he made me build a glass xylophone for one of them!), as well as that Turangalila concert at Juilliard, and also got to travel to Iceland to play it with my fellow mates (hey guys! I’ve got photos in a box; will post when I find them!). But playing chamber music w/him as a coach was truly mind-blowing, as I experienced when we played the hours-long Morton Feldman piece for flute, piano and percussion, “For Philip Guston”, at Paul Hall. Above all, I loved that this man taught at Juilliard, when in essence he was such a contrarian to what Juilliard was all about. He will be missed and a true genius has left us. RIP Mr. Zukovsky!

  • Paula Robison says:

    So sad to hear this…He and I were classmates at Juilliard and my first-ever performance of “Pierrot Lunaire” was with Paul, Robert Sylvester, Joseph Rabbai, and Edward Steuermann. Arthur Weisberg conducted. Jan deGaetani was our sprecherin. Quite an experience. I’ll never forget Paul’s viola playing in “Rote Messe”!! RIP, Paul….or whatever your spirit needs to do!

  • Aaron Boyd says:

    I’m heartened to see people coming here to share their memories of Paul. I loved him, and in many ways, learned more from him than any other mentor in my life.

    We first met in the summer of 2000 when I became involved in a project instigated by him to learn, perform, and ultimately record Babbitt’s 6th quartet. When I think of it now; the 4 of us, in a small classroom on the lower east side, with Milton Babbitt at a chalk board, teaching us about his music, with Paul Zukofsky and Fred Sherry commenting on the side. How lucky was I?

    Paul and I realized that we were simpatico and, little by little, we grew very fond of each other. We often had dinner together on Pongsri Thai in china town. Always at the same table, always the same menu. Followed by, always, Vietnamese coffee and a long walk afterwords to Union Square and the train home. The conversation was always illuminating. Fascinating. His opinions were revelatory to me. His way of thinking about music. I knew very early on that my mind was not to come to grips with his own intellectual powers. I felt a Pygmy in that respect. But I learned simply by listening to him think.

    I also remember lunches at Côte Basque where he would impress me with his French and his deep knowledge of wines. I noted that the chef of this New York institution always made the effort to come to our table and pay his respects to Paul.

    He left New York for Asia in 2003 and I almost never saw him in person again. We kept in touch via skype quite regularly.

    When I was in Hong Kong for concerts in 2015 I was finally able to see my friend after so many years. He looked only a little older. A little more stooped. A little greyer. When I bid him farewell that night I didn’t think I would ever see him again.

    Paul Zukofsky was a genius. A violinist of unique powers and a music mind unlike any other. I have so many memories and there is so much to say. The world is lesser without him.

  • Brian Hysong says:

    Hay Aaron!! That was a beautiful remembrance of Paul.He will be missed by all of us who knew him.

  • Pamela Frame says:

    Paul was a great friend and I learned so much from him. I’m so sad to learn of his passing, I had been trying to find him recently.

  • Robert Moran says:

    I remember so many years ago having lunch with Paul and talking about his various recordings and activities. We had a most interesting discussion about the pros and cons of the later works of Feldman. So very sorry to hear about his departure.

  • Árni Ingólfsson says:

    Paul had a decisive influence on a whole generation of Icelandic musicians, myself included. His debut there as a violinist was in 1965, and in 1977 he gave an orchestral workshop which eventually led to the founding of the Icelandic Youth Orchestra under his direction. Zukofsky (or “Zukki” as he was affectionately known in Iceland) conducted this group regularly until 1993, giving truly remarkable performances and often bringing Juilliard students as his assistants. His choice of repertoire was audacious for a country with a young orchestral tradition; he gave the first Icelandic performances of major works like Mahler 6 and 7, Bruckner 6, and Messiaen’s Turangalila symphony. Paul was also a tireless advocate of the Icelandic composer Jón Leifs, conducting a concert of his works (also recorded) with the Iceland Symphony in 1989, and in 1991 the premiere of Baldr, a ballet score from 1947, with the youth orchestra. His last appearance in Iceland was in 2004 (the Icelandic premiere of Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies). His caustic manner, incredibly keen ear and his demand for utmost professionalism inspired both fear and respect. Iceland owes a lot to his groundbreaking work.

  • susan wadsworth says:

    Paul Zukofsky was a part of Young Concert Artists from l964 for about 5 years.. For his debut recital in the YCA Series on February 2, l965, he performed all of the Charles Ives Sonatas for Violin and Piano with the pianist Gilbert Kalish. Such was Paul’s respected reputation even at that early age that his debut was reviewed by the chief critic of the New York Times, Harold schonberg. At 23, he had already recorded all of the Bach solo works as well as all of the Paganini Caprices! He performed chamber music in the Series in l966 with Ilana Vered and Paul Green including Bartok Contrasts and a Brahms Piano Trio. We once booked him for a joint recital with Murray Perahia who was also on the roster at the time, and when Murray fell ill after they arrived at the venue, Paul gave a stunning concert of Bach Partitas for Solo Violin. He was a smart,funny,grumpy, utterly delightful friend. We last spoke when he was in Hong Kong, and when I asked why he was there he
    said that on his money he could live well there! How I miss him ..

  • Steve Glassfan says:

    Paul played the violin parts on the original recording Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Act II of The Photographer (1982). Act II of The Photographer is my all-time favorite piece of music, and Paul plays it perfectly. Thanks Paul!

  • Richard Kostelanetz says:

    Don’t forget my early profile of him, initially in the New York TIMES MAGAZINE in 1969 and subsequently reprinted in my book ON INNOVATIVE MUSICIANS (1989). Not only were his recordings of the JSB solo violin pieces masterful, but don’t forget his Paganini CAPRICES.

    Striving for a powerful position was never among my professional aims, but often in my emails with him over recent years I wish I could made him an offer he couldn’t refuse to return to his hometown where, during his time here, he did so much good work. I particularly remember the series of John Cage concerts that he organized at the Museum of Modern Art for the summer John died.

  • Johan Stern says:

    I was very saddened by the news of Pauls passing. We met in the early 80’ in Sweden. I was in my first year of bachelor and Paul was giving a chamber-music course in contemporary music opening so many doors to the music of Scelsi, Xenakis, Feldman, Cage and others. Interpretations that still today form a base for my musical life. We had a walk in the the forest – a hostile and threatening environment to Paul, that typical New Yorker he was. During this walk he told me everything I needed to look into to and study, not only music or certain works, but also literature, art, philosophy, science etc. I was amazed – he was the first jewish intellectual that I ever met in my life! Paul could indeed be grumpy and harsh but he was, and all the comments above clearly show, truly passionate in his mentorship and a great and generous educator. The Messiaen Quartet and Pierrot Lunaire were pieces I was lucky to study with him as well as playing in the enchanted Summergarden concerts at MOMA with John Cage and Satie Relâche, Turangalîla and Leifs Baldr premiere recording in Iceland to follow. I spoke of Paul only a few weeks ago meeting the youth orchestra kids, now full members of the Icelandic Symphony. Unfortunately I lost track of Paul, trying to trace him was not easy and although I keep contact with many, both former students and faculty he vanished. I can never return my gratitude of his commitments – remembering his delicately vibrant sound in his almost non vibrato-playing – Wie in Hauch! he will always be present and continue to mesmerize.

  • says:

    Dear Paul, wherever you are! Thanks so much for our time together in the Oscar Schumsky founded orchestra, “The Colonial Symphony”. You chose me as your Principal Bassoonist to join the other wonderful musicians from the New York and New Jersey community. We worked for over three years together in so many unusual and inspired concerts that you created. I learned SO MUCH from your unorthodox and “Untraditional” interpretations of the “Classics” that I found my following years in the music world seemingly a bit uninteresting, by comparison. One of my fondest and most terrifying memories, working with you, was your call to have me see you in your room just before our performance, which included Beethoven’s 4th Symphony. Without warning and without a neck strap, you asked me to play the tricky last movement, audition piece, super fast, staccato bassoon part. WHAT! So, I bent over forward, to hold my bassoon, without any support, took a huge breath and played the fastest single tongued interpretation Paul had ever heard…as HE stated! Wow, what FEAR will do to promote ONE’S VERY BEST. You will be ALWAYS remembered fondly by your friend, Peter.

  • Saul Sternberg says:

    Friends and admirers of Paul might be interested in another aspect
    of his life: Paul as scientist. In the late 1970s, when I was doing
    psychological research at Bell Telephone Laboratories, my boss, Max
    Mathews, introduced me to Paul, who had raised some questions about
    timing. (Max was a pioneer in computer music and was associated
    with IRCAM; several musicians visited Bell Labs frequently in those
    days.) My discussions with Paul and Ron Knoll, a colleague, led to
    a body of collaborative experimental research from which we learned
    a great deal; it is described in a chapter by the three of us,
    “Timing by Skilled Musicians”, in “The Psychology of Music” (1982;
    D. Deutsch, Ed.). In this work we measured the perception, production,
    and reproduction of fractions of a beat, and discovered some
    interesting systematic errors that are related to each other in
    apparently paradoxical ways. What I found remarkable about Paul
    was what a wonderful scientific collaborator he was. Unlike most
    people without scientific training, he had an acute sense of the
    relation between conclusions and the evidence for them, and a good
    sense, given a new finding, of what the next question should be.
    About ten years ago we renewed our friendship, interacting by email.
    We exchanged hundreds of messages: As well as sharing articles of
    mutual interest that we had come across, I consulted him when my
    research touched on aspects of music, and found his comments and
    suggestions to be extremely helpful. And I also commented on issues
    he raised, especially, for example, in his research on the structure
    of the minuets in Haydn’s string quartets and symphonies.
    Paul was as interesting, stimulating, and helpful as anyone with
    whom I’ve collaborated in research, as well as being a dear friend.

  • Joshua Gordon says:

    There are many former colleagues and students of Paul in the music world who in spite of his difficult side are deeply indebted to him as a musician, colleague, conductor, and teacher. He was capable of being negative, yes, but was also one of the most funny, generous, and remarkable teachers I ever had, and opened my mind to musical possibilities I had never imagined before meeting him. I worked with him at Juilliard in the 1980’s, played an amazing range of repertory there and at the MOMA Summergarden series under him (my first summer it seemed like every weekend I was playing another 20th century masterpiece by Crumb, Cage, Carter, Debussy, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Webern, and more), and was a guest artist at his Kennedy Center American Composer series including a performance of Ives’ Piano Trio, the four string quartets of Vincent Persichetti, and Morton Feldman’s concert length epic “Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello”. He brought me to work with his youth orchestra in Iceland twice, including that amazing performance of Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, and while I was there he treated me both to half a lamb’s head and my first ever shot of Brennivin.

    A favorite joke I learned from Paul: One day Mrs. Schwartz goes to the travel agent in Brooklyn and tells him, “Book me on a flight to Nepal, I’m going to see the great guru!” The travel agent tries to discourage her on account of her age and the strenuous journey, but she admonishes him, “Don’t tell me that! You book me on a flight, I will see him!” She takes a plane to India and then a boat up a river, and then hikes into the mountains with local guides. After months of hardship to track down this guru, she finds his location, but he is in the middle of some kind of ritual on a mountaintop which lasts for days and the guru’s followers won’t let her see him. Finally the guru is ready to receive visitors and his guard calls for Mrs. Schwartz to be admitted, but on the condition that she may only say three words. “That’s ok, that’s all I need,” she replies to the guard before making the final climb up the mountain. Reaching the top, she stands before the famous guru. “Sheldon,” she barks, “Come home!”

    If friends, colleagues, and former students would like to share more memories, photos, audio, video, etc., I posted a new FaceBook page “In Memory of Paul Zukofsky”. I feel lucky to have known him.

  • Saul Sternberg says:

    For more thoughts about Paul, and comments about the NY Times obituary,
    search for languagelog and Zukofsky.

  • Craig says:

    a memorial concert for Paul to take place in NYC on Oct 12. Welcome all to attend. Details can be found on Facebook by searching “concert in memoriam Paul Zukofsky”