If you’re doing one thing and you’ve got blinders on for your whole life, you’ve got to turn around and ask yourself what you’re doing at some point.
Violinist Alan Chen is incredibly articulate and expressive. He’s measured yet entirely transparent to the moment, peppering in quizzical, comical, and fervent accents to make his statements that much more expressive. “Playing the violin is a direct mirror of how I live my life,” he admits. If the inverse is true, his phrasings are an intimate insight into how effectively he draws his bow to finesse melody from his instrument. His varied musical projects may also indicate just how much he has to say with his fiddle, with each offering a different shade of his musical soul.
Chen was born and raised in San Jose and began studying the violin at seven. He remembers how his mother, a piano teacher, would quiz him about composers they’d hear on the local classical station, KDFC. The sounds of Slayer, Pantera, and Metallica were present as well. He dabbled in guitar with friends in high school, but nothing captured the fervent focus tethered to his violin. He was accepted into the San Francisco Conservatory of Music out of high school, yet after only one year, he chose to step away. Too many years of obsessive musical focus had taken its toll.
“I was just running on the hamster wheel,” he recalls of that time. Chen shifted his studies to San Jose State University (SJSU) for two years, though music was no longer his primary focus. “Even though it was what I wanted to do, as a person, if you’re doing one thing and you’ve got blinders on for your whole life, you’ve got to turn around and ask yourself what you’re doing at some point. Instead, I dropped out and ran away to Oregon for a few years.”
Chen met a girl online and was granted his reason to get away, uprooting and moving to Beaverton, Oregon, in 2004. The relationship eventually deteriorated, and he came back to San Jose after close to four years away from home. Perhaps what’s most shocking is that, aside from one drunken night when he attempted in vain to regain command over an instrument he’d tried to master for half of his life, he largely kept his fiddle in its case
until he returned.
Back from his Oregon sojourn, he dove headfirst into teaching, offering lessons out of two music schools and his own studio for the better part of five years. He also reconnected with a few friends from Independence High School who offered him a chance to audition for their rock band, Curious Quail. “It kind of just fell into my lap to be honest,” he says of the chance, which proved a match. It was a surprising opportunity for a metalhead who never imagined he’d get to play his instrument of choice in a rock context.
In 2013, Chen headed back to SJSU with a focus on violin performance, graduating in 2016. As it turns out, that pause did provide him with a fresh perspective once he returned. Sheet music—classical music in particular—became clearer. He says he caught the music department at a great time. “Through them, I really did come to know music as something that was a vibrant thing—more cultural, more connected.”
Chen is currently in his second season with Chamber Music Silicon Valley—part of their Young Artists roster. The gig provides a chance to learn from world-class talent in his field, which he says “fulfills the whole academia-driven, high-level, high-expectation place in my life.” Curious Quail, in contrast, occupies a more loose, informal space. “It’s not like it’s not serious when you get on stage,” he’s quick to counter. “It’s a different color, not any less vibrant.”
Then there’s NO/YA. Working within a loose, jam band framework, the trio’s sound, in his estimation, best aligns itself with the chilled-out, emotive, and woozy world of vaporwave. “If you were to hear me in that, you would hear me literally talking to you,” he admits. “I can actually speak through the instrument without the fetters of other people’s composition.”
Chen still teaches, and thanks to his time away from his instrument, he’s more inclined nowadays to tell students to be unafraid to try new things. As his own example shows, sometimes you need to step away from what you truly love to regain your appreciation for it.
Written by Brandon E. Roos
Photography by Robert Schultze