William Barklow’s 1980 release Voices of the Loon illustrates the power of sound design and field recording to create a narrative. The album, created for educational and fundraising purposes, quickly gained an odd reputation beyond its straightforward documentation of loon calls. It would in time go on to sell in the hundreds of thousands, becoming a beloved New Age meditation resource. Its reach went further, establishing the loon as a cinematic signifier: Barklow would provide sound design assistance for On Golden Pond amongst other films. The album even inspired the Off-Off Broadway production (The Loon, a play noted by the New York Times as “… unafraid of its own strangeness).”

“Introduction” opens the album with a single loon’s wail before a second bird’s tremolo is added, more bird calls clustering and gathering in an almost anxiety-inducing cacophony. A lecture read by noted broadcaster Robert J. Lurtsema calms the soundscape and introduces us to the five main types of loon call, while placing the bird in a wider cultural and historical context. Lurtsema’s voice is perfect: calm, deep and gently authoritative, he handles Barklow’s script with ease, taking seriously some of the more purple prose that might otherwise threaten the album’s gravitas. This is also the track that draws the most ire from those attracted to the nature recordings for more meditative purposes, interfering as it does with the otherwise evocative and contemplative atmosphere that dominates the rest of the album.

Once the listener has been thoroughly trained in identifying the various calls (aided by the spectrographs included on the album’s back cover), the remainder of the album is both, at its most obvious, a collection of bird calls and at the same time a primer in the kinds of compositional practice other artists would become better known for.

“Chorus from a distant lake,” for example, mixes wails and tremolos of birds presumably near and far with what sounds like other lake noises – insects and frogs perhaps – all dusted with a heady reverb which adds to the mystery of the calls. This makes the softer, more distant calls seem somehow lonelier and reinforces the call-and-response pattern loons are known for. While loons are the stars of this show, they have significant supporting characters. Other tracks include buzzing flies that approach and recede, lapping waves on lakeshores or the sounds of water against wooden structures, all punctuated by the loon’s wails, yodels, hoots and tremolos. None of these secondary sounds are named or identified, but their inclusion makes for an arresting experience as its these other sounds which flesh out the aural world, suggesting the venturesome field recorder lying still in an unsecured canoe while the birds call around him.

Closing track “Coyotes calling with loons” dubs in coyote calls, since the animals are common in regions frequented by loons. “Wails during a thunderstorm” documents the cries of a loon trying to find its mate in a storm. The track mixes in peals of thunder, rain and dripping water sounds and by the end removes these, perhaps a little abruptly, to leave the solo loon’s voice presumably echoing across the lake, alone and unanswered.

One is encouraged to reevaluate the album as more than a document of bird life in North America; this is a suiter of sound compositions informed by field recordings, creating something that doesn’t just record historical moments but also conveys the effect of them, the atmosphere of the lakes with water rippling, insects, sounds of weather and, equally, the hiss of analogue recording equipment.

Here one can draw parallels with the work of Jez riley French or Chris Watson, who sew field recordings into longer compositions that suggest the environments they’re drawn from and lay out specific narratives. On Watson’s Weather Report, for instance, “Ol-Olool-O,” pieces together recordings made over a 14-hour period in Kenya’s Masai Mara to create an 18-minute narrative of sunrise and dawn chorus, life and death struggles, dusk and nightfall.

In the end, what the still popular Voices of the Loon does is demonstrate the power of field recording and sound design to both record and evoke, to provide a soundscape about which the listener can conjure a story or provide the necessary mental images. While physical copies might be hard to find, and should be immediately snapped up if encountered, Voices of the Loon can be found easily online.

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