Paul Zukofsky

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This strikes me as an unusual obituary: Margalit Fox, "Paul Zukofsky, Prodigy Who Became, Uneasily, a Virtuoso Violinist, Dies at 73", NYT 6/20/2017. It massively violates the precept de mortuis nil nisi bonum, describing its subject at great length as an "automaton" who was "deeply ill at ease with world"; an "arch-bridge troll", full of "unbridled hubris", "disdain for those less gifted than he", and "an ample sense of self-worth"; "swift to run to judgment", "meanspirited, sarcastic, rather bitter"; someone who would "look at [his audience] with utter contempt", and on and on.

Margalit Fox certainly found plenty of sources for these judgments. But this litany of bitter score-settling is completely at odds with my own experience of Paul Zukofsky.

I first met Paul around 1976, when I was employed at Bell Labs in Murray Hill NJ, and he was the music director of the Colonial Symphony in Madison, a few miles west. He was planning to present Bach's Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, and he needed a continuo player. I owned a harpsichord, had once taken a conservatory course in figured bass realization, and occasionally performed with professional and semi-professional chamber groups in the area, so Joan Miller recommended me to him.

Paul was then teaching at Stony Brook, so I treked out there to audition. That was an amazing experience — while I played the continuo part, Paul, with an occasional glance at the score, played the parts of all three soloists and the rest of the orchestra all at once on the violin. It was amazing. I had never seen anything like it. I managed keep my jaw off the floor, and made my way through the audition well enough to get the part.

This situation was inherently intimidating, and my own musical gifts were far below Paul's. But he was charming and friendly, interested in talking about Bach's music, and about music theory and the psychology of music, and he left me with a positive feeling about the whole experience.

For a while around that time, Paul became a regular visitor at Bell Labs, where he contributed to some interesting work, including these publications:

Ronald Knoll, Saul Sternberg, and Paul Zukofsky, "Subdivision of the beat: Estimation and production of time ratio by skilled musicians", JASA 1976.
Mark Liberman, Joseph Olive, and Paul Zukofsky, "Studies of metric patterns", JASA 1977.
Saul Sternberg, Ronald Knoll, and Paul Zukofsky, "Timing by Skilled Musicians", in Diana Deutsch, Ed., Psychology of Music, 1982.

Throughout those interactions, I never met the cold, mean, unpleasant man depicted in the NYT obituary. On the contrary, Paul was always smart, engaged, friendly, and even convivial.

Maybe I have a thicker skin than the people who supplied Margalit Fox with so much bile. Or maybe Paul was different in later life than he was when I knew him.

But looking over the obituary, I see two other factors that might be relevant. One is Paul's role as executor of his father's estate — that's a side of him that I never saw, and one that would not have been relevant before Louis Zukofsky died in 1978, which was after most of my interactions with Paul.

And the other factor might be his apparent reluctance to take up the standard role of a violin virtuoso, or at least to limit himself to playing that part. Perhaps he saw me and others at Bell Labs as part of his self-liberation from that role, rather than as part of the world that he needed to escape, and perhaps he therefore interacted differently with us.

Still, I have a feeling that most people could be unlucky enough to be treated to an obituary like the one under discussion. The recipe is clear:  find people with a grudge, people on the other side of arguments, people who were offended on purpose or by accident, people who were disappointed, people with relevant prejudices, and select your quotes to play up the negatives and minimize the positives. The Paul Zukofsky I knew deserves better.

Update — a letter sent by Saul Sternberg to the New York Times:

I believe that this obituary gives a false impression of Zukofsky's personality.  The only indication that he could be a sweet, loving, caring person is the one quote (Kalish) "to those who understood him deeply…"  If you look at the comments on you'll find many who loved him, and some for whom he was a kind and caring mentor. Surely they didn't all "understand him deeply".

It is as if, rather than providing a balanced description, the writer emphasized those aspects of his personality that would fit with her beliefs about his early life and her claims about his "emotional development" having been "sacrificed to professional prowess".

I've known Paul Zukofsky for the past forty years, and although the names of many people have come up in our conversations and correspondence, I've seen no evidence of "his disdain for people less gifted than he".

Also, the obit fails to mention the existence of the Zukofsky Quartet, named in his honor.

Update #2 — from Joshua Gordon:

It was good to read your commentary on the NYBTimes obituary for Paul Zukofsky, and I am sympathetic to your experience with him (he was an important mentor to me at Juilliard and beyond). I posted a new Facebook page for anybody who wants to share thoughts or materials on him called "In Memory of Paul Zukofsky", I hope you'll want to contribute to it.


  1. Mara K said,

    June 21, 2017 @ 7:43 pm

    This reported violation of "do not speak ill of the dead" reminds me of the stronger injunction in Jewish tradition to not speak ill of anyone, which made my Ashkenazi forebears extremely clever in wording their insults. In that tradition (though sadly not emulating the best of it) I say: May Ms. Fox be misunderstood only to the degree that she misunderstands others.

  2. Vance Maverick said,

    June 21, 2017 @ 8:24 pm

    RIP. I got to know PZ's work as a teenager listening to new-music recordings in the 1970s. Later I became fascinated by his father's poetry, and observed the son from those other angles too — but they seem to me less important now.

    I corresponded a bit with Mark Scroggins, the source of many of the complaints in the obituary about PZ as literary executor. I don't blame him, rather Fox for choosing to give them so much weight. I imagine she could have found a historian of the new-music scene to add more to the other pans of the balance.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 21, 2017 @ 10:52 pm

    It reads to me as if someone thought the musical career as such was just not sufficiently notable to justify a full-scale NYT obit, and so in order to come up with a newsworthy piece you had to cobble together the musical career with the obstructionist-literary-executor career and the emotionally-stunted-child-prodigy career (treating that as if it were a freestanding thing, rather than a background footnote to the adult musical career). That aggregation combined with the dime-store psychologizing leads to an oddly unbalanced-feeling result. I can think of lots of prominent rock and jazz musicians who had difficult and/or self-centered personalities where pretty much all of the quotes compiled at the beginning of myl's post would be perfectly accurate to say, but one would expect the obit to primarily focus on why the music they made was historically significant and important to its listeners, with the rest being off to the side and/or part of the narrative largely insofar as it helped explain gaps or erratic quality in the music, perhaps with less of a feel of "what a jerk!" than "this is why he regrettably never lived up to his early potential." Although I must say compared to the average obit-worthy rock or jazz musician this fellow's alleged foibles are super-boring. No addictions, no failed marriages, no destroyed hotel rooms, no backstage fistfights, no jail time, no lawsuits against former managers who allegedly fleeced him of millions — all of which would seem to be fair game for at least brief mention in such a musician's obit without it feeling unduly mean-spirited. Maybe the comparative insignificance of the alleged personality shortcomings here compared to that sort of more conventional talented-but-high-maintenance-musician narrative is what makes the piece seem petty in its tone?

  4. D.O. said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 1:18 am

    Mr. Brewer, I've read about half of Ms. Fox's piece and came out with a feeling that she is trying to answer the question why Mr. Zukofsky, despite being a virtuoso and accomplished musician, haven't become a celebrity. That seems to me a strange question to ask especially in an article for general audience and, of course, I might be wrong, but that was my impression.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 1:56 am

    Did Mark Scroggins mean, in fact, "arch bridge-troll" rather than "arch-bridge troll" as written ? (“He’s just seen as the arch-bridge troll of literary executors.”). Whether or not the (metaphorical) bridge has or has not an arch would not seem to be relevant here.

    [(myl) He obviously meant "arch bridge troll", with arch as in "archangel", not arch as in "gothic arch". But how that should be hyphenated is not clear. The OED's entry for the relevant sense of arch say "Chief, principal, prime, pre-eminent. (Now rarely used without the hyphen.)" One of the citations is

    1597   Shakespeare Richard III iv. iii. 2   The most arch-act of pitteous massacre.

    So if the noun were simply "troll" it should have been "arch-troll". Given that the noun is "bridge troll", "arch-bridge troll" is plausible if potentially misleading.

    (Since the entry has not been updated since 1885, the meaning of "now" in the OED gloss is something short of contemporary.) ]

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 2:08 am

    @Philip Taylor: I think you've identified not a mistake, but a problem of how to hyphenate three-word right-branching compounds. Just the other day I saw a reference to the "self-check in" system at our local clinic, which struck me as wrong for exactly the same reasons "arch-bridge troll" caught your eye. But I asked my son how he would hyphenate [self [check in]] and he came up with the same thing the people at the clinic had produced, and thought that "self check-in" would be weird. With only hyphen and no-hyphen as options for separating the words, there's no way you can express the branching structure unambiguously, and different writers solve the problem in different ways.

  7. Keith said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 3:16 am

    @Philip Taylor, Bob Ladd

    There's a very good, very simple rule when writing: if it looks clumsy or ambiguous, or if it sounds clumsy when read out loud, it probably needs to be re-written.

    The hesitation over where to hyphenate ("arch bridge-troll" or "arch-bridge troll") is an good example.

    But in this case, should we add bad writing, in addition to nastiness and petty score-settling, to the accusations against Fox? It could easily have been a "correction" made by an editor.

    Oh, and a small typo in this blog post: "trekked", not "treked".

  8. AntC said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 6:12 am

    I agree with myl this is an unusual obit. (Disclaimer: I'd never heard of Zukofsky, despite being a devotee of Bach. Philip Glass not so much.)

    The obit seems to bounce from extremes ("a little automaton") to extremes ("could play so tenderly, …").

    Nowhere so self-contradictory as the hed; and that's what I thought Mark was commenting on, linguistically.

    Isn't a prodigy ipso facto a virtuoso? What's with the uneasy becoming already? A prodigy might fail to fulfill their potential/squander their talents/become over-populist. To be sure, being a virtuoso anything must strain even the most gifted.

    Perhaps the hed's incoherent word-salad is an indication of the overall style of the piece?

  9. languagehat said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 8:23 am

    Mark, you and Saul Sternberg don't seem to have encountered the bitter, unpleasant side of the man. Lucky you! But that doesn't mean it didn't exist or that there weren't a lot of people who did encounter it, and I personally don't believe in "nil nisi bonum" (nor does, or should, the NY Times). I never met PZ and cannot speak to his personality from firsthand experience, but as a fan of his father's poetry I have been aware for years of his behavior in regard to that legacy, and I am glad it was featured prominently in the obit.

    [(myl) The record in that matter seems to be less uniformly problematic than Fox (and you) suggest — at least, Charles Bernstein, who edited Louis Zukofsky's selected poems for Library of America, writes that he "met Paul, in New York, in the early 1990s, and we remained friends since."]

    I agree with D.O. that Fox seems to be trying to answer the question why Zukofsky, despite being a virtuoso and accomplished musician, hadn’t become a celebrity, and (pace D.O.) that seems to me a perfectly reasonable question to ask.

    Perhaps the hed’s incoherent word-salad is an indication of the overall style of the piece?

    For god's sake, the person who writes the piece is not responsible for the headline!

  10. AntC said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 8:42 am

    the person who writes the piece is not responsible for the headline!

    I wasn't suggesting they were. But perhaps the headline-writer tried to reflect the piece?

    And likewise (but atheistic) expletive: why do accomplished musicians have to become celebrities? It's an entirely unreasonable question to ask. Usually celebrity ruins their musicianship. I respect the man if he wanted to remain a musician, not become a circus act.

    (I know nothing wrt his treatment of his father's legacy.)

  11. languagehat said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 8:49 am

    why do accomplished musicians have to become celebrities? It’s an entirely unreasonable question to ask. Usually celebrity ruins their musicianship.

    That's a non sequitur. You might prefer to live in a world in which celebrity, if it must exist, should be ignored, but that is not the world most of us live in, and certainly not the Times (or any other newspaper). It is a perfectly reasonable thing to wonder why, if X is all that great, nobody's heard of him (which is essentially the case with PZ). I have actually wondered that myself, knowing how good his playing was. I think the obit is helpful in answering that.

  12. DWalker07 said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 9:13 am


  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 10:46 am

    I had never heard of him (as violinist – the literary-executor contretemps definitely sounds familiar but I wouldn't have recalled the name b/c frankly his father was not one of the 20th century poets I have any devotion to), but classical music isn't my thing. Because it is not my thing I assume there are plenty of classical musicians prominent enough within their field to be plausible candidates for an NYT obit without regard to whether I (or the median reader with no particular interest in classical music) have heard of them. To take a field I do know a fair amount about, I would imagine there are at least 50 or 60 living jazz musicians (not too many of whom are going to die in any given year …) prominent enough within the field that they would plausibly get an NYT obit, of whom the median NYT reader with no particular interest in jazz would have heard of no more than six or eight. I would be surprised if the NYT ran an obit of a jazz musician of whom I personally had not heard, but failure of someone well-known within the relevant field to cross over into general celebrity (for the sort of field where "local" prominence does not reliably translate into general celebrity these days) does not strike me as a puzzle in need of extended discussion.

    Or is the claim that Zukofsky was not well-known even among the sort of people (a decided minority of NYT readers these days, I should think) who could easily name a dozen or twenty living classical violinists off the top of their head, and that's the puzzle in need of journalistic explanation?

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 10:56 am

    For me, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum is too sweeping an axiom. I would prefer "quia nil mortuorum non fuisset ausus dum viverent ipsorum" (although I don't vouch for the accuracy of the Latin).

  15. languagehat said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 11:00 am

    Or is the claim that Zukofsky was not well-known even among the sort of people (a decided minority of NYT readers these days, I should think) who could easily name a dozen or twenty living classical violinists off the top of their head, and that’s the puzzle in need of journalistic explanation?


  16. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 11:40 am

    I am with J. W. Brewer. There are any number of very accomplished musicians who are not celebrities by any stretch. Is the first chair violinist of the New York Philharmonic a celebrity? By any reasonable definition, this person is an extremely accomplished musician. Yet I doubt that even limiting ourselves to people who regularly attend that particular orchestra, that he is a celebrity in the sense that most would recognize either his name or his face. If he were introduced to them as the first chair of the Philharmonic, they likely would be suitably impressed, but that means it is an impressive job title, not that the person holding it is a celebrity. If we look at the soloists who tour, there is name recognition within the field, but I doubt that Joshua Bell or Hillary Hahn have trouble eating their lunch in peace what with all the autograph requests.

  17. Bill Benzon said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    On who is and is not known… there is the well-known case where Joshua Bell played for 45 minutes in the Washington, D.C. subway and no one recognized him, not did he attract a gaggle of listeners. But he did make #32 in tips.

    At the moment the NYTimes is running a feature about a middle-aged (47) jazz pianist named Craig Taborn.
    Taborn is revered by other pianists and considered by many to be one of jazz music’s few contemporary innovators — a judgment likely to be reinforced by his stunning recent album, “Daylight Ghosts.” Yet he is not widely known even among jazz aficionados.
    At this point I hesitate to call myself a jazz aficionado, though I once was, mainly because I don't follow the scene very closely. But I check in every now and then, and I've heard of two of the pianists mentioned as Taborn's contemporaries, Matt Moran and Vijay Iyer, but I've not heard of Taborn.

  18. Bill Benzon said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    Whoops! The passage that'd bold-faced above should be quoted.

  19. Daniel Barkalow said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 2:33 pm

    The rule I learned was that, if you attach something via hyphenation to a phrase, you hyphenate everything in the phrase as well, even if you otherwise wouldn't. So I'd expect "arch-bridge-troll". Also,

  20. peterv said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 3:17 pm

    @Languagehat @ 8.49, You misunderstand modern celebrity. You write:

    "It is a perfectly reasonable thing to wonder why, if X is all that great, nobody’s heard of him"

    The nature of modern celebrity is such that the correct question is:

    If X is all that great, why has anyone heard of him?

  21. languagehat said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

    peterv: Heh. You've got me there!

  22. Andy said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 3:55 pm

    @Philip Taylor: The Latin's quite hard to interpret, but I guess you mean 'say nothing of the dead that you wouldn't dare to say of those still living'? Perhaps this will do the trick: 'De mortuis nil dicendum est, quod de adhuc viventibus dicere non audeas'.

  23. Rebecca said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 4:49 pm

    @Bill Benson, just to pick a nit, Bell actually was recognized by at least one passer-by, see the woman who stops at about 1:38 and stays to the end:

    I'm very interest to see the publications on timing. Right after grad school, back in the late 80s, I had the good fortune to play (baroque harp)for a few years in the continuo section for a regional opera company. When we weren't actually working on a show, we'd get together for fun to tighten our chops as a continuo ensemble. Most fun was playing something you might call 'affect tag': playing through a baseline, one person would adopt some affect, lay it on thick with all the tricks in their bag, then tag someone to carry on that same affect. What made it fun would be that,say, a gamba player would use all manor of sustain and swell to produce an affect, then pass it to someone like me or the lutenist, who had no swell and neglible sustain, but different tools.

    But what is more on point with the articles linked above,was the attention we paid to note placement, particularly after a pregnant pause and when you wanted the whole group to be right there with the singer. If we were literally all together, we sounded off: the perceived notes of the plucked instruments were already dying away before the onset of he bowed and sung notes were perceived. I was a little freaked when this was brought to my attention, because I was a learning on the job amateur among a lot of trained musicians. But actually just listening with that in mind (and having a view of the soloist) was enough for us all to adjust our note placement to line up that perceived note center. Counting it mechanically would have been impossible.

  24. Dr. Decay said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 7:18 am

    I'm late to this thread, but can we get back to "arch-bridge troll"? I thought it was a play on words; the arch and the bridge both being parts of a violin. Actually, I think "the arch" usually refers to a characteristic of the body i.e. how curved the front and back panels are. One would speak of a "15 mm arch". Still, saying that the bridge sits on the arch doesn't sound way off to me. So if you're a fiendishly good player, you could be …

    Now how would you punctuate it?

  25. Yuval said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 11:13 am

    @Mara K: the Hebrew version of the 'speak no ill of the dead' proverb is particularly clever: it concatenates three consecutive weekly Torah section names אחרי מות, קדושים, אמור to create the grammatical (if a tad peculiar) phrase "after death, say they were saints".

  26. NW said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 11:15 am

    Bowing quickly between the arch and the bridge is known in the trade as an arch-bridge trill.

  27. hector said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 4:26 pm

    Taken out of context, "after death, say they were saints" sounds like a sardonic comment on human behaviour, not a religious injunction on proper conduct.

  28. Paul Mulshine said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 10:15 am

    This thread led me to look for some of Zukofsky's work online. This John Cage piece is phenomenal:

  29. ryan said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 12:14 am

    Arch-bridge troll = guy who is constantly sniping at the way his partner jumps to no trump?

    I think the problem with the phrase isn't hyphenation, but that inserting bridge there serves no purpose at all. Is it meant to be a knowing nod to the story of the billy goats gruff?

  30. Ro Silva said,

    July 3, 2017 @ 6:22 pm

    Paul and I become fast friends in 2010 and we always emailed back and forth no matter where he was, monthly.

    I am heartbroken at the lost of such a fine person, a gifted musician and a caring friend who was willing to open up and share his life with me.

    Paul, I shall miss you but you already know that!

    Hugs, Ro

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