On Saturday, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson passed away in his apartment at age 48. The last film soundtrack he released was in 2016 for Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a moving meditation on language, humanity, and empathy that won Jóhannson a Golden Globe and critical adoration. Villeneuve and Jóhannsson were frequent collaborators, and together they made a movie to ask if learning a language can really change your life.
Crash course: protagonist Louise Banks is a linguist brought in by the military and tasked with translating the communication system of an alien race that has made contact with Earth. The plot relies heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that our native language shapes our perception of the world. For example, a Francophone wielding the word “astre” (a general term referring to any celestial body) will conceive of outer space differently than an American who usually has to distinguish between stars, moons, and planets. English speakers think of time as a progression from left to right (like a history timeline), but certain indigenous tribes in Australia organize their timelines from east to west, regardless of the direction they’re facing at the moment. It’s easy to imagine how far you could take this: how does our language affect the way we think of faith, or emotion, or self? Are we a product of nature, nurture, or the way we ask that question?
Regardless of how valid the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is, Arrival is the story of a woman learning a new way to communicate and finding her perception of life fundamentally changed, on a cosmic level. Arrival is any language learner’s dream writ large: by learn a different language, become a different person. Maybe an effortless-It-Girl-femme-fatale is lying dormant within me, waiting to be unlocked with the power of nasal French vowels. Teachers and friends have said they express different personalities when they speak second or third languages, but I’ve never been bilingual enough to figure out if I’ll be a changed person or if I’ll forever be an alien in a world I don’t have the capacity to describe.
Jóhannsson’s score attempts to tackle this same duality. Almost every track marries the native language of film scores, the orchestra, with something entirely other. The strings and percussion crop up like linguistic cognates, but out of nowhere emerges a sound so foreign it makes the hair on your arms stand straight up. Jóhannsson leaned on human voices, layering and hollowing through entirely analog processes, and it gives the sound an organic quality that makes everything unnervingly realistic; unsettling because what seems alien was human all along.
I don’t know much about the particularities of French mourning, but I do know this: you don’t say “I miss you,” you say “Tu me manques,” or, “You are missing from me.” And the verb quitter means “to leave,” but it can’t be used in the way we Americans say “I’m leaving for Paris next week.” For that, you’d use a verb like partir or voyager. With quitter, leaving is defined not by where you’re going, but by what you leave behind. Jóhannsson leaves us a singular body of work, and a new touchstone for both the language of music and the language of empathy: compassion, for anyone and any tongue alien to us, because we’re them, and they’re us.