Not long ago, I was watching “Game of Thrones,” the megahit HBO show set in the fictional world of Westeros, when I heard a sound I knew well: the long, high call of the common loon. I’d heard it a thousand times, on a hundred lakes, and here it was in a scene overlooking the peaceful (but soon to be blood-soaked) castle of Riverrun. The bird was clearly meant to signal a place far away in the wild.
The loon call is a common sound effect. But for me, hearing the loon in the middle of a show is jarring, because it’s so distinct and my own memories of it are so clear. No doubt this is a common experience for any northerner watching any film set anywhere in the wilderness: In a moment of quiet repose, a loon will be there. But rather than immersing us more deeply in the film, it pulls us out.
“Loon is definitely a popular sound,” said Greg Budney, who was the audio curator at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., for nearly 40 years. “It seems like after ‘On Golden Pond,’ [the loon’s] use as a sound effect increased. It appears in all kinds of films, from the African desert to the southwestern U.S.”
The Cornell Lab is where Hollywood goes shopping for bird sounds. Sound designers would call Budney and his colleagues to ask for a call. Sometimes they knew what they wanted. Other times they didn’t.
“They’re trying to elicit a particular emotional response from the audience,” Budney said. “And the loon’s wail, which is a contact behavior, has a mournful quality, and that’s often what they’re going for.”
The loon has four different calls. The wail is most popular in films. Next is the tremolo, what wilderness advocate and writer Sigurd Olson called, “wild, rollicking laughter.” Then there are also the lesser known (and lesser used) yodel and hoot. It was the tremolo that Katharine Hepburn loved (and badly mimicked) in “On Golden Pond.”
Since then, the loon has had cameos in everything from the savanna in “Out of Africa,” to the Canadian winter in “The Revenant,” to the prehistoric “Quest for Fire.” Whenever a producer wants to say you’re far from civilization (or help), in goes the wail. It appeared more recently at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War,” when the villain Thanos sits down to mourn all he’s lost. The sun sets. The loon calls.
It’s no wonder Hollywood loves the loon: There is no sound quite like it on earth. When you are alone at night on a northern lake, the wail goes right though you. It’s a sound you feel with your whole body. Echoing across the water, it feels ancient and lonely, like something rising from the distant past. And in a sense it is: Loons are one of the oldest living birds, with fossils dating back as far as 70 million years. It’s easy to imagine that their call is as old as their bones.
But the allure of the loon call isn’t limited to the big screen. It has also featured heavily, and bizzarely, on the global dance floor. This started in 1989 when not one, but two, European discothèque hits sampled the loon’s tremolo: English band 808 State’s “Pacific State” and Sueño Latino’s “Sueño Latino.”
According to an in-depth investigation by Pitchfork magazine, the sound first appeared on a sampling keyboard that came out in the mid-1980s, where it appeared as “Loon Garden” in the sound library (floppy disk #22). The call was so stark and so strong that it never really went out of style. It has appeared in countless songs since then, most recently Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” and “Wheat Kings” by the Tragically Hip. The bird just keeps on rocking.
Far from the beaches of Ibiza, there was a third loon-based phenomenon that peaked in the mid-1990s. Recall your average Interstate 35 gas station or New Age book and crystal shop of the era: None would have been complete without a full rack of the Wisconsin-based NorthWord Press CDs, which included megahits like “Jazz Loon,” “Classical Loon” and “New Age Loon.” In 1995, Inc. magazine reported that NorthWord had revenue of $36.9 million and had seen 831 percent growth over the previous three years. We were crazy for loons and their tunes.
Since then, NorthWord has changed hands and doesn’t sell those gems any more. The market for loon albums may be smaller today, but the tradition is carried on by Minnesota’s Robbins Island Music, which still sells albums like “Sounds of Loon Calls” and “Loon Talk.” According to owner and composer Bradley Joseph, their most popular CD is “Loon Sounds with Music: Loon Calls with Soothing Music for Deep Relaxation.”
“Growing up on a lake in Minnesota, I heard loons on the water my entire life,” Joseph said in an e-mail. “I try to bring the serenity of those moments into the music.” He said he thinks people buy the loon CDs because “it brings them pleasant memories of simpler times.”
For those of us who have heard a real loon call, that may be true. Because for all Hollywood’s dramatic intentions, the effect on us may be the opposite. Whether you’re lost in the world of Westeros, or dancing in some foreign disco, whenever you hear that “untamed sound,” as Olson called it, instead of transporting us farther away, the loon brings us home.
Frank Bures is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. He also is the editor of "Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology," which will be published in May.
Hear the yodel, tremolo and hoot of the common loon in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology archive at bit.ly/loonOW.