Isolation Drills: Ruby The Hatchet

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Sean Hur (keyboards): It’s been a curious year. It feels suddenly, as of this writing in June, that we’ve had a year without spring, and halfway through, the only seeming benefit is in how it’s made the beginning of the summer especially beautiful. The relief of less smog is subtle in the city but real in our clearer, quieter skies, and I’ve been grateful to be spared the allergies I’ve endured in previous springs. The effects are cumulative and slow, but I do feel now it is the best time to get out into nature and our neighborhoods and enjoy the best air and skies we’ve had in decades as we switch to the next phase. We all have sacrificed, but we gain things if we can find them.

I’m a audio tech in Philly, so the work has been somewhat steady as musicians have been wanting to get their gear in shape to record and maintain rigs while the schedules are open, so there’s been more pro audio gear coming in as well for those who are trying to record and make music how they can. I bet it’s still been difficult though to be creative for many in isolation. For the artists, it’s the social moments, dialogues and movements that fuel creation, not the view or like counts. For performance artists in all fields, this is a most frustrating time; everyone is getting rusty, and those who love the stage like I do are missing the “hurry up to wait” for gigs and the cancelled tours. The streams aren’t good enough.

Personally, I’ve been revisiting and relearning but also trying new things while I dare with the time. I’ve been teaching myself Tarot, especially since last summer, and I’ve continued through all of this time; it’s been amazing for my relative mood. It’s meditative, more about finding words and images to attach to the subconscious feelings and currents of daily life. When you learn, you’ll see your draw has patterns, and then you can realize how so much in your intellect follows those patterns in personal events, interactions and emotions.

I’ve been getting into ’90s Hong Kong and ’60s French new-wave cinema and revisiting some classic films. My favorite by far is Chunking Express by Wong Kar-Wai. Faye Wong and Tommy Leung are magic in their chemistry. Bande À Part by Godard was my first of his. It’s the dance scene and the hard edits with the music. Shinkai’s anime classic Your Name is the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen. My favorite film to revisit was Miller’s Crossing by the Coen brothers. There’s nothing like the “Danny Boy” scene; the tommy guns are almost musical how they sound and are used, especially. Albert Finney is brilliant. 

I’ve not seen a single episode of Tiger King just to wear it almost like a badge. (This is a soft badge.)

I’ve been getting back to basics and writing music when I can, but also getting back into good habits of practicing. I’ve relearned the guitar solo to “Waiting In Vain,” which has been a revelation because of its timing and properly learning what I had not gotten quite right the first time. I’ve gotten close on “Send In The Clowns” on piano, my favorite Sondheim tune. 

I’ve been also been getting back into cooking as many are—especially old Korean dishes from my childhood. Partially this is due to my avoiding big-box grocery stores when possible, as I’ve been favoring local Korean ones. They were the first to be proactive with the pandemic and were also never sold out/looted of necessities.

In this time, I’ve also been acutely aware of the uptick of racist attacks against Asian people (particularly women, children and elderly) through this pandemic, which has set a unique backdrop for me in how I’ve viewed the protests in America. While I’ve noticed subtle behaviors and words in how some have reacted to me, no one has been overt toward me as I’m tall and my look might show that I’m not an easy target. But I do maintain that with most people, these are aberrations because of fear and racism, amplified onscreen as most people we come into contact with are all just trying to deal with the now. It is a blessing and curse where we are now because there are so many things we can’t control; but of the things we can, the people are moving. Luck favors those in motion.

From even just a couple weeks ago, especially in the digital spheres with the neo-civil-rights movement, the lack of any common social direction or purpose over getting out of quarantine has radically changed the feeling of the year as we’ve gotten to the summer.

At least there’s a distinct digital dividing line between people in the mainstream and this “minor schism” of unfollowing on social-media platforms. Yet the protests are a huge historical marker that was meant to happen. Indeed if this year might not be economically better than last, and frustrate us collectively, we will be to be able to leave this year with real changes that mean something physical. To get our collective house just a little more in order would be a blessing to walk away with in 2020.

Things will and cannot simply not stay as before. If there are more crises that occur that don’t help our current situation, it’ll bottom out further before it improves. Quite simply, if there’s not enough work and social progress stalls in the minimum, people in desperate situations will be get angrier with the heat and this fall as we veer closer to election season.

Where I work in Kensington, there were National Guard stationed on Kensington and Allegheny avenues during the day. After a week, they and the curfews were gone and much of the streets looked as they had before despite the damage, which was slowly being repaired. The people who live here represent probably one of the most integrated neighborhoods in Philadelphia; as there are homeless, citizens and users just trying to survive, there’s no grand cultural war to fight here. It is just people trying to get by. There was looting and property damage, but the overtone of racialized anger was not there. It was about desperate people trying to take advantage while there was one. Those overtones exist in wealthier Fishtown, Port Richmond and South Philly.

But since it’s warmer and we’re starting to enter the next phase, we’re finally getting back to playing music out of isolation together again, which can’t be soon enough. People are seeing their friends for the first time in months. I can predict as we transition back to a new normal tempo, socially whilst the masks become a part of our collective wardrobes for the foreseeable future, people will be washing and disinfecting their hands more frequently after going out and contact tracing (in their social circles and nets) when we’re all out of this. Which, funny enough, is also actually good social manners and maybe something that people should’ve been engaged in more anyway.

I do believe that most people are for the future—doing things better and getting better as individuals to do their bit. It may not be as pretty or sound as good as we’d like, but even those who are vehemently fighting against change or what they don’t like will have to catch up to the rest of society or be left behind.