Fergus and the Druid

A performance of Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata K365 by Orion Weiss


Fergus and the Druid was created as part of a collaboration with jazz composer Tim Daisy at Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago. The program, called “Moments of Intersection” was part of a series exploring the connection between jazz improvisation and visual arts. Although the collaboration did involve me painting one of Daisy’s jazz compositions, this painting was intended to engage with his style of composing instead. Fergus and the Druid is based on the Scarlatti Sonata K365.

The painting takes its title from W.B. Yeats’ poem of the same name. In the poem, Fergus, king of the Red Branch kings, seeks out the counsel of a Druid. He has given up his throne to a younger relative and followed the Druid into the wilderness. As the Druid changes from a series of animal forms, and finally into a human form, Fergus begs the Druid to grant him wisdom and insight, and release him from the burden of his throne. The Druid answers by showing Fergus a bag of filled with the hopes and dreams of others, at the bottom of which is sorrow. The poem is formed as a call and response. The Scarlatti sonata has the same form and the writing on the painting tracks the call and response of the poem.

The painting integrates a baroque era sonata with an Irish poem from the 1880s. It takes on the colors of a USGS satellite image of what is called the Land of Terror – the Tanezrouft Basin in Algeria. The manner of this construction reflects what Daisy called his composing technique of “assembling” of a composition.

Fergus and the Druid
Fergus. This whole day have I followed in the rocks,
And you have changed and flowed from shape to shape,
First as a raven on whose ancient wings
Scarcely a feather lingered, then you seemed
A weasel moving on from stone to stone,
And now at last you wear a human shape,
A thin grey man half lost in gathering night.
Druid. What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?
Fergus. This would I Say, most wise of living souls:
Young subtle Conchubar sat close by me
When I gave judgment, and his words were wise,
And what to me was burden without end,
To him seemed easy, So I laid the crown
Upon his head to cast away my sorrow.
Druid. What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?
Fergus. A king and proud! and that is my despair.
I feast amid my people on the hill,
And pace the woods, and drive my chariot-wheels
In the white border of the murmuring sea;
And still I feel the crown upon my head
Druid. What would you, Fergus?
Fergus. Be no more a king
But learn the dreaming wisdom that is yours.
Druid. Look on my thin grey hair and hollow cheeks
And on these hands that may not lift the sword,
This body trembling like a wind-blown reed.
No woman’s loved me, no man sought my help.
Fergus. A king is but a foolish labourer
Who wastes his blood to be another’s dream.
Druid. Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams;
Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.
Fergus. I See my life go drifting like a river
From change to change; I have been many things —
A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light
Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill,
An old slave grinding at a heavy quern,
A king sitting upon a chair of gold —
And all these things were wonderful and great;
But now I have grown nothing, knowing all.
Ah! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow
Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured thing!
William Butler Yeats