Monday, November 27, 2006

Interview: Contemporary Classical Radio's maestro

This is my exclusive interview with Adrian Koren, the founder and owner of Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

modernclassical: Can you tell me something about yourself, and why
you started the station?

My name is Adrian Koren. I have no background in music, in fact I can
barely carry a tune, altough I am related to the late violinist Isidore
Cohen. But I developed a serious enthusiasm for classical music while in
college, not quite 20 years ago.

Over time, I found that my tastes, in CDs and concerts, were drifting to
less well known repertoire, particularly more recent music. Given a choice
between a concert of all Beethoven works, or a world premiere of something
by Judith Weir, the premiere would win hands down.

I thought it was a shame that there weren't many opportunities for someone
with my tastes to hear a lot of modern classical music. Classical radio
stations have become more conservative, if they survive at all, and of
course concerts tend to focus on standards, with a few modern pieces
thrown in occasionally, which the audience would tolerate out of

I also thought that if listeners had a chance to hear more modern music,
on a regular basis, they might develop more enthusiasm for it.

So one day, I was sitting at my computer (I'm a software developer, so I
spend a lot of time there), when it occured to me that the Internet might
provide a way to present a radio show. Within minutes I had found Live365,
which provided a very easy way to get a station started, and they even
handled the legal/copyright issues. It was a no-brainer: two days later I
launched CCIR. That was 24 October 2003.

modernclassical: What are your policies for what you will play?

I try to be as flexible as possible. I play works written after 1900,
although I sometimes stretch that for early works by important 20th
century composers (e.g., Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, 1899).

Stylistically I am wide open. I've got complex music like Wuorinen, more
accessible music like Alan Hovhaness, and some "downtown" rock/classical
hybrid pieces from Bang on a Can. The goal is to have every aspect and
style of classical music of the last 106 years represented on the station.

I often receive discs from composers or small labels looking for exposure.
I'm always happy to give the discs some airplay, and I've found some real

modernclassical: How often do you update the playlist with new

The station is usually updated every weekend. [Note: Playlist updates available here.]

modernclassical: It seems to be what you are doing is kind of important -- there are no commercial radio stations that I know of that concentrate on modern
classical music, and it isn't even offered on satellite radio, as I've
noted on my blog. Do you see yourself as kind of an MTV for modern

I've never thought of the station as being MTV, although I appreciate the

I think Internet radio has the potential to change the way people listen
to music. Because an Internet station is relatively cheap to launch, has
worldwide reach, and is not limited by the number of frequencies, a
hobbyist can launch a niche station without having to worry about
financial viability. Thus, the Live365 catalog is filled with stations
playing formats that couldn't possibly survive in another environment.

"Modern classical music" definitely fits into the "not financially viable"
category, so Internet radio can be a revelation for those who care about
it. There are several Live365 stations playing modern classical music in
addition to my own, many of them even more specialized than mine.
PostClassic Radio, for example, which is run by composer/author Kyle Gann,
focuses on recent American music, especially music associated with New
York's "Downtown" scene. And I would love to see more people launch
classical Internet radio stations with their own personal stamps.

But CCIR has certainly caught on more than I expected, and I'm thrilled
that so many people are listening and discovering new music. I often get
emails saying something like "I'd never heard of composer X until I
listened to your station, now I want to hear more!" And that is why I
launched the station in the first place.

modernclassical: How many people listen to your station?

Live365 measures stations with TLH ("Total Listening Hours"), which is the
total time listeners have listened to the station over the last 30 days.
CCIR has about 11000 TLH at the moment; on a typical weekday, I get about
400 hours of listenership.

I don't know how many individuals are listening to the station, but I do
get listeners from all over the world.

modernclassical: When you program, do you try to "mix it up," for example, do you avoid playing two atonal pieces back to back?

Because the station is continually running, I can't possibly program every
minute by hand. I do some program planning, but much of the time the
playlist is selected by computer.

Now I realized when I started out that just having the computer pull
tracks out of a hat would be very unsatisfying. So I have a script that
tries to "think" in the same way I do when I am planning playlists. Since
"diversity" is the theme of the station, this means that you will rarely
hear two pieces by French composers in a row, or two solo piano works. And
yes (to finally answer your question) it tends not to play a lot of atonal
or avant-garde works in a row.

After a lot of tweaking, I'm pretty happy with the way the script works
now; when I review the playlist each day I usually feel like it did as
good or better than I could have done by hand.

Of course, I also play automatic requests from the website, and when that
happens all of the "rules" go out the window!

modernclassical: You listen to a great deal of contemporary music. Who are your favorite living composers, the people you believe deserve a much wider audience?

It is really difficult to try to rate living composers, especially younger
ones, because typically we only have a couple of hours of recordings to go
on. We have multiple recordings of every scrap that Mozart wrote when he
was 5, but a composer today has to scramble for funding to get a single
disc released by a label like New World, and that could be the composer's
entire recorded legacy. And that just isn't enough to judge someone's
place in history.

So when I thought about the composers that I consider truly great, I
mostly came up with names that have a good recorded legacy and the support
of some major or mid-sized labels: John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, Poul
Ruders, Henri Dutilleux, John Harbison, Giya Kancheli, Christopher Rouse,
Sophia Gubaidulina. (I could go on -- and Ligeti would be at the top of
the list if he were still alive.)

But there are also living composers who might well be considered among the
greats, if only we could hear enough of their music to decide. This list
might include Beth Anderson, Ezra Sims, Judith Weir, Kamran Ince, Noah

And who knows that discoveries await in the next batch of CDs to arrive at
my door?

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