Recently, a friend asked me, “What is wrong with John Rutter’s music?”
Technically, nothing. I’ve sung with Rutter. The man is a musician through and through. But those carols get a little cloying.
The parallel I drew was with Thomas Kinkade’s paintings. Technically, he knew what he was doing. Yeah, the way he handled light was weird and unnatural. But the entire corpus of 20th-c painting is weird and unnatural, so that shouldn’t disqualify him. What the two artists have in common is cozyness. They’re all about warm safe spaces. I can’t think of a single Rutter piece that I’ve heard that has any negativity or dissonance in it at all. I can’t remember seeing any Kinkade painting with any ugliness or darkness in it. It’s all about this pleasant place called Cozyland, where lower-middle-class white women with children go to live. It’s a Kinkade cottage, perfectly unnatural, no longer found in this world (if ever it was), with a warm fire and Precious Moments, and Rutter on the stereo, with no darkness seen at all, maybe because that metal halide lamp on the ceiling that’s spilling thousands of lumens onto the ground outside has blinded the inhabitants. There are no people, because they’re messy, and certainly no children, who are noisy and vulnerable. (When I see a cottage in the woods, I think of Hansel and Gretel. “Look at my house, little girl! It’s made of gingerbread! Siding stuffing is my favorite. Especially when the bird stuffs herself.”)
And the Rutter comes in 3 minute bursts, like early atonality, because that’s about how long you can go without tension. (Yes, I’ve sung the Gloria. I rest my case.). And it’s always vocal. There could be a string quartet in that cottage, or an upright piano, but no. That would require tension to get to the end of a phrase, whereas with words, grammar will do the trick. Having children singing is a plus. In Cozyland, children are to be heard and not seen. Unless they’re crying, in which case they aren’t even to be heard.
Sure, I’d like to live in Cozyland. I like my creature comforts, peace, order, light, second breakfasts, white people, major-key harmonies with added-note chords. But that just isn’t our world. There are wolves and poison ivy in that woods, and no matter how much light pours out of the window, it will never reach into the dark lairs of evil. Yes, we can have respite. We’ll go carolling with John Rutter at the Kinkade house, and the Kinkades will invite us in for cookies and hot cocoa, and we’ll admire the fire, and the painting on Tom’s easel that we can’t really see because there’s too much frigging light. And once a year is about right for that. But then I’ll come home and write music about fighting off the wolves and winning, and about the Light that is not ours that pours INTO the cottage, and about children who cry for bread in their little cottages. Because art shouldn’t lie. neither positively nor negatively. The world is not a warm quilt, but neither is it a bed of nails. It’s ours to accept and make better, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.