Tmolus of a Different Color

When I came across the first sentence of the Denver Post’s Fine Arts Critic Kyle McMillan’s puff piece about composer Osvaldo Golijov, I had a deviant, critically fanciful thought: what would happen if I did a little research about this commercialized cliché and, subsequently, its use as metaphor?

Osvaldo Golijov is the King Midas of classical music.

To explain: King Midas (from Greek mythology), as we all know, had the “Midas touch,” turning whatever he touched into gold, the possession of the power known in alchemy as chrysopoeia, or the Philosopher’s Stone.

Simple, right? Kyle’s just saying that Golijov is very successful. Well, these meta-critical eyes read into it a little more than that, perhaps too much. I tried to find out what’s beneath this reference to see if we can really say whether it’s an appropriate metaphor in this context, because, often times, metaphors can go astray in unusual ways.

Now, what follows is not a critique of Kyle. Nor am I putting words into his mouth. It’s a more discursive critique, a critique in general, because we all understood Kyle’s initial reference—it was successful. But!

When we dig in, however, we find some disturbing things. And if I were Osvaldo Golijov, I might have strong reason to believe that the “Midas touch” was, indeed, inappropriate, because there is much more to the story of King Midas.


The Abridged Story of King Midas with Observations of Note

Silenus, Dionysus’ teacher, got drunk, wandered away and passed out. King Midas took him in and entertained him for ten days. Midas returned Silenus to Dionysus on the eleventh day. Grateful, Dionysus offered Midas a reward. King Midas asked for a “golden touch,” which he received. He loved it at first, but grew to despise it—everything he touched, including his food, turned to gold. He begged Dionysus to take it back. Dionysus consented, telling King Midas to wash it off in the river, which he did.

1) King Midas was greedy
2) King Midas eventually saw his “golden touch” as a curse.
3) King Midas was cleansed/baptized in the river.

Afterwards, he hated wealth. He came to worship Pan, the God of shepherds, hunting and rustic music. Pan is thought to have studied music with Orpheus. On one occasion, though, Pan challenged Apollo, the God of the Lyre, to a musical competition, with Tmolus, the mountain God, as the judge. Apollo handily won. Among the spectators, the only dissenting opinion was made by King Midas. Ticked off at his awful ears for music, Apollo turned them into donkey’s ears. Ashamed, King Midas hid them by wearing a turban.

4) King Midas no longer troubled himself with wealth, favoring a simple life, as exemplified in his God of choice, Pan.
5) King Midas had terrible ears for music.

That's King Midas on the left, with donkey ears.
(painting by Jacopo, il giovane Palma, 1548-1628)

So, you see, there is a lot to the story. And since it’s a metaphor, after all, we have to substitute Osvaldo Golijov for King Midas, greatly changing Kyle’s initial meaning.

1) Osvaldo Golijov was greedy
2) Osvaldo Golijov eventually saw his “golden touch” as a curse.
3) Osvaldo Golijov was cleansed/baptized in the river.
4) Osvaldo Golijov no longer troubled himself with wealth, favoring a simple life.
5) Osvaldo Golijov had terrible ears for music.

Or further...

6) Osvaldo Golijov was Dionysian (of chaos and ecstasy), as opposed to Apollonian (of order and harmony).
7) Osvaldo Golijov worshipped a musically inferior God.
8) Osvaldo Golijov wears a turban.

Given a tiny bit of knowledge about Greek mythology, Kyle’s first sentence is deeply troubled, that is, if taken out of context. Of course, this isn’t what he’s pointing at, but still. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Osvaldo Golijov is the next Jacko,” or “Osvaldo Golijov is the next Britney Spears.” Is that a good thing? Maybe. Maybe not.

Is this metaphor apt, then? Sure, if it’s qualified. However, Kyle’s sentence didn’t mention the “Midas touch,” it referred to King Midas, the person-myth--a much broader topic than just the "Midas touch.".

I know I’m belaboring a super-super-super-small point, but it also gave me the perfect springboard to ask another question. Can anyone tell me why Allan Kozinn called Messiaen’s colors, colors for Britney’s sake, harsh?

In the more expansively dense sections Ms. Archer played [the organ] with an unflagging power and assertiveness. Those are necessary qualities here: the best way to deal with this score as a listener is to stop wondering why Messiaen painted God in such harsh colors and let the music envelop you. When it does, Messiaen’s vision becomes clear.

Perhaps, he’s taking the super-super-super stupid, clichéd, stereotypical, facile route: dissonance is objectively bad. I guess, to Kozinn, dissonance doesn't jive with the whole "good" God thing. Oh well. I suppose it takes a donkey's ear to know a synesthete.


Empiricus said...

What? No one disapproves of God's condemnation of dissonance? Wussies.

Murderface said...

"I suppose it takes a donkey's ear to know a synesthete." Is one of your best sentences ever. Kudos.