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Neil Welch on La musique or l’orchestre rouge by Salvador Dalí

For years now, I rise every morning and step into the living room of whatever house or apartment I happen to be living in, and I look into a painting. I take a few moments and sink into reflection as I view the magnificent La musique or l’orchestre rouge (1957) by Salvador Dalí. A framed print of this painting has followed me from my first apartment as an adult in Seattle, to a rural home on Whidbey Island, to its current spot in my rental in North Seattle. Wherever I live this painting hangs in easy view so that I might encounter it several times a day. It is a striking image—set against a red curtain, a hollow-bodied and faceless white performer in deepest emotion grips the hand of a beautiful black body, expressed in the form of a cello. The ebony “instrument” points upward towards a living branch in an otherwise nearly barren landscape. To the right a weeping white piano with yet another faceless performer lunges towards the instrument, fingers failing to connect with the keyboard. I have been told that this painting is a celebration of music. I have never found it to be as such.

As a performer and composer, I identify with several musical traditions in my work. However, I continue to identify most strongly with my role as a modern jazz musician. I am also a white, college educated middle class male. From my earliest connection to the jazz world as a student to this very moment as a performer, this painting is a daily reminder that I must grapple with the history of systemic racism in western music. Staring into the painting daily, I ask myself questions of extraordinary complexity, many without answers and all in continuous evolution. What is my role as a white performer in a music rooted at its core in the rich cultural contributions of the black community? Does my role as a white jazz musician take up space that ought to be rightly occupied by black performers? Am I adding to the legacy of systemic racism and male dominance in western-based music? Am I honoring, through my work, in my teaching and in my performances, the personal sacrifices made by black musicians who gave us this music which is of such critical importance?

Neil Welch
(saxophonist and one half of the Seattle drum/sax duo Bad Luck)