Unicorns come to the Hay (and to Providence)

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Artist’s research sketch, 1999, from the John Hay exhibit

On Wednesday, the John Hay library hosted a unicorn colloquium (yes, really), with discussion from Brown professors from different departments “engaging in scholarly inquiry into the unicorn legend.” Audience members, including a few people who came wearing fabric plush horns on their heads, enjoyed “unicorn-themed treats” after the event, which marked the opening of the “The Unicorn Found Exhibit” at the John Hay Library.

This exhibit is part of a larger community “interactive art experience” happening through the summer in Providence, titled Unicorns In Residence: Providence, a mysterious series of unicorn-related events and installations that centers around a search for “The Missing Unicorn.”

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Yes, this is a real thing. The search for “The Missing Unicorn” will begin with posters popping up around the city mid-March, which will say that the unicorn was last seen in Providence’s Fargnoli Park. People can call a “Unicorn Hotline” to leave their sightings and tips. The Providence Children’s Museum will host the “Missing Unicorn Wall” and “PlayPhone,” from April 15 to May 15, with an audio component and glitter phone booth. Through the end of the month, the Providence Public Library will host “The Unicorn Stampede,” an art installation of life-size glitter unicorns floating on pink and purple clouds set to music. Galloping life-size unicorn images will appear throughout Providence at the end of the month on the sides of buildings and “other surprise locations.”

The opening colloquium, The Unicorn Found: Science, Literature, and the Arts, featured Brown professors from three departments: Johanna Hanick from the Classics department, Amy Remensnyder from the History department, and Felipe Rojas Silva, from the Archaeology and the Ancient World, Egyptology and Assyriology departments. The three panelists spoke about different aspects of the unicorn in its mythological, symbolic, and narrative significance, approaching the topic from their areas of expertise.

First, Professor Hanick looked at the presence of hybrid creatures and monsters in Greek mythology, focusing in particular on a theme of ‘absence.’ Hanick highlighted Ctesias, a Greek 5th century BC poet, as often cited as the first to have written about a one-horned, unicorn-like animal. Ctesias described:

“There are, in India, certain wild asses which are as large as horses and even larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark read, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn in the middle of the forehead that is one cubit in length. [The animals] fight with thrusts of horn; they kick, bite, and strike with wounding force… they cannot be taken alive. The flesh of this animal is so bitter that it is not edible; it is hunted for its horn and its ankle-bone.”

Professor Hanick emphasized that references to an animal that lived in ‘India,’ are some of the only places we can find unicorn-like creatures in Greek literature, as ‘India’ was  somewhere the Greeks saw as exotic and beyond their occupied world. This was because all the mythological monsters, like the Chimera and giant mammals, were written about as in the past, no longer existing in Greece at the time these poets were writing. Hanick suggested that myths of heroes slaying monsters, like Theseus and the Minotaur and Hercules and the Hydra, while also focused on the individual achievements of mortal heroes, as a whole amount to represent a purification of the world, a cleansing, from the “dark and terrifying beginnings” – a way to describe the absence of these creatures from the civilized Greek world.

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Alvin Lucier: Some spatial characteristics of sound waves

Last night, in Grant Recital Hall, a cellist held one continuous note for over 10 minutes. Written down in black and white, that doesn’t seem it would be that much of a feat, but to see it performed live was intensely mesmerizing.

One woman, Laura Cetilia, sat with her cello in front of several glass vases. These vases, suspended above the ground, contained microphones tuned to pick up various frequencies emitted from her instrument. As the piece progressed, I realized she was not holding one pitch, but continually adjusting the pitch slowly enough that it was hardly distinguishable. Occasionally, she was accompanied by the wave of another sound caused from just the right frequency being captured by one of the glass vases.  I broke my stare to survey the room and found I wasn’t alone in my trance. There were only a few empty seats in the hall, and zero people checking their cell phones.

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This performance was part of the Colloquium series sponsored by the Multimedia and Electronic Music Experiments (MEME) department here at Brown. It was followed by a talk and Q&A with Alvin Lucier, the composer who wrote Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases and several other famous pieces that explore the physical and structural nature of sound.

Lucier has taught at Brown twice, but is known mostly in academia for his 43-year-long career at Wesleyan. As he spoke about the process and intent for the creation of his work, he name-dropped several musical pioneers as collaborators and friends. Among them: John Cage, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. (No sweat if those names aren’t familiar, but I cannot recommend MUSC0200 enough if you want to find out who they are.)  Continue Reading