Written by 4:14 am Audiophile Music

Virgin Airlines Red Music System Gets Reviewed

Even Without Tubular Bells, Mark Smotroff Still Enjoys Virgin’s RED Inflight Entertainment System

When it comes to traveling, I’m a kind of finicky, fickle customer so far as my music choices go. Especially on long trips, inevitably, I will load up my iPhone and iPad with loads of music that I know I’ll never find elsewhere, music that will provide some relief from the barrage of crappy music I expect to hear on the road (I mean, of course it will be crappy, ’cause its not my music, right?).  

AR-VirginRedMainCabin225.jpgAnd then when I’m at my destination I’ll find I’m not really interested in hearing any of that music I belabored on choosing. So, yes, a streaming service might be good for me in that regard.

I hear ya… I’m fickle, I tell ya…

Even when I plan on bringing new and useful music with me, something always glitches up for me.  On a recent cross country flight, some key things I wanted to listen to — and review, frankly — didn’t load up after I sync’d them. My bad for not double checking after the sync.

Ah well, it was all ok in the end because I was flying on Virgin Airlines.  I like that airline. I’m not an employee and I have no affiliations with them. But I certainly admire what they do and appreciate the quality of their services. 

That said, given my listening situation this trip, I decided to poke around in the airline’s “RED” Entertainment System. This is the company’s on-board one-stop-shopping, viewing and listening network that exists in front of every seat on the plane; it gives you the ability to order food and drink, watch television, movies, play games and, of course, play music!

So, there I was at 38,000 feet poking around on RED when I noticed something curious. Tucked betwixt and between the pop hits of the day were some intriguing — and not at all typical — modern composers… representing.

Representing!  I tell you… 

AR-Barber225.jpgThere next to Band of Horses was the great-but-generally-unknown-to-the-mainstream composer of one of the most supremely powerful and beautiful pieces of music ever written —“Adagio for Strings” — Samuel Barber.  Down in the “V” section I found Frank Zappa’s hero Edgar Varese (“The present day composer refuses to die”).  Into the “S” section I found recordings by Karlheinz Stockhausen  and Sun Ra!  Heck, they even had Schoolhouse Rock up there! 

The kids listening to this stuff might say: WTF?  

I say: FTW!

Don’t understand those abbreviations? Get thee to The Urban Dictionary for some edjumacation, folks…

Its hard to describe the odd glee of listening to Varèse’s “Ionization” at 36,000 feet (I think we were over Texas at that point, which made it all the better). Somehow, the music’s dissonance and percussive abrasion smoothed out and made lots of sense against the low background roar of the plane’s jet engines and the occasional crying babies.  I really enjoyed Varèse’s “Hyperprism” so I have to go back to my old LPs and see if I have that piece in the collection. 

Switching gears to one of my musical heroes, I spot checked some of the Frank Zappa recordings they had up there on RED.  Fidelity wise, the sound wasn’t all that knocked out, I will admit.  It sounded like MP3-quality streaming radio essentially — but at 37,000 feet with all that background noise, does it really matter? The choice of the music is what really mattered and in this instance someone behind the scenes programming Virgin’s RED system knows Zappa’s catalog intimately. They chose some unexpected tunes such as “It Might Just Be A One Shot Deal” from Wakajawaka (itself, not exactly the first album people typically hear from Frank Zappa — yet as a life long fan I can claim it as one of my favorites!). 

AR-SunRa225.jpgThis lead me to explore Sun Ra’s music “Englightenment,”  “The Shadow World” and “Exotic Forest” which reminded me I need to pick up some of his albums soon (a jazz artist I’ve admittedly hesitated on delving into just because I know he will be an enormous Pandora’s Box!)

I didn’t make it through much of Stockhausen’s offerings there, but then I have to admit I rarely make it through Stockhausen even when I’m sitting in the comfort of my living room.  Still, it was oddly reassuring just knowing that he was there on the network.  

I checked out some artists I’d not heard of before such as Rain Machine, a raw folk music of sorts from the guitarist in TV On The Radio) and I tried a few tracks by Sia (who I had just been turned on to at a music store in Orlando due to the reissue of Zero7’s Simple Things, the downtempo chill out hip hop project she apparently made her debut on — separate review to come).

So, there you have it. The bar for inflight entertainment has been raised a bit with Virgin’s Red system. Its not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But it could be a whole lot worse. And for that sort of environment where you are pretty much confined to your seat for five hours, its  a welcome breath of fresh air to have a fairly well thought out system of discovery there at one’s fingertips, free of charge on the flight, without the need to go on the Internet.  For that, I send off some kudos to Virgin.

I just have one suggestion for Virgin: they really need to have permanently in the collection there some representation of progressive rock pioneer Mike Oldfield’s music. You see, Dear Readers, Mike was the first artist signed to Virgin’s record label in 1973 and became an international sensation with his magnificent album Tubular Bells

So, it can be argued, that without Mike, Virgin might not be quite the superpower entity they are today, and perhaps even the airline itself might not exist.  

Credit where credit is due.

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