Composer and director Heiner Goebbels in conversation with Robyn Archer at Sydney's Theatre Royal.

Composer and director Heiner Goebbels in conversation with Robyn Archer at Sydney's Theatre Royal.

Key Sydney Festival guest composer and director Heiner Goebbels said he was unaware for eight years that he should seek permission to use the indigenous Australian title of his Sydney Festival show Eraritjaritjaka, despite its themes of how language, colonisation and the power of hierarchy can oppress people.

But the German artist believes the show, a collaboration with Switzerland's Theatre Vidy-Lausanne, "saved" the "completely forgotten" word.

Frankfurt-based Goebbels, who insists he is not a writer, first staged the work in 2004. He found the title in the writings of the late Bulgarian-born German Nobel laureate Elias Canetti's essays, which deal partly with Australian Aboriginal and other indigenous societies.

Goebbels thought the word – which he also used to title a musical piece he composed in the show's denouement – apt for a show that combined music, video and performance centred around a "museum of lost phrases", which is an original Canetti phrase.

The production, which included filming on Sydney's streets, ended its Sydney Festival run on Sunday.

The production's program says the exact geographic origin of "eraritjaritjaka", which broadly means nostalgia, remains unknown, but attributes the word to the Arunta or Arrernte language of the Central Australian Aranda people.

Canetti specifically defined the word's meaning as "desperately looking for something which has been lost".

Goebbels told performer and arts curator Robyn Archer in a festival talk at Sydney's Theatre Royal on Saturday: "The title Eraritjaritjaka, which I found in Canetti's writing, of course was completely forgotten. By doing these pieces, and showing this piece all over the world, somehow we saved this word, and there's maybe 50,000 people who know this word now and try to pronounce it."

Asked by Fairfax Media if permission had been sought from the Aranda people to use the word, and whether the composer ever had concerns that its use could potentially be seen as cultural appropriation of language, Goebbels said: "I think it was the [Sydney] Festival who tried to get [permission]."

Goebbels deferred to the festival's artistic director, Lieven Bertels, who was seated in the audience, because he could "answer the question better".

Bertels, the Belgian who is curating his first Sydney Festival, said from the audience: "It's an interesting question and funny you ask us [he and Goebbels] because we are two Europeans unaware of Aboriginal issues," he said.

"I went through a similar experience that maybe Heiner has gone through, many people who arrive here, unaware of any of the protocol around using an Aboriginal word.

"We have one Aboriginal [festival] staff member, Leah Flanagan … [who] has family in the Hermannsburg mob, where this word originates from … it was pointed out to me, 'No, we have to actually seek permission … the word might actually be a word that was taken to Europe that could be a secret word which we cannot use'.

"And so we had to go through due protocol and checked it, and what linguists and people speaking the language that it probably comes from say is that, actually, it's a combination of two words, and the meaning that Canetti connected to it and that Heiner just explained is probably pretty exact; so it's a pretty close translation."

In the end, David and Lily Roennfeldt from Hermannsburg, where Western Arunta is spoken, suggested that "eraritjaritjaka" was an older form and older spelling of "erraarerrama", the present tense verb for "longing".

Goebbels, 60, who began his career in music as a concert and record producer who also wrote music for theatre, film and ballet, was asked what he hoped audiences would take away from the show.

"I don't want to define what an audience should get out of a performance. If I wanted to do that, I would probably be a journalist or a writer who makes statements. Or maybe a politician. I'm not that.

"I'm an artist and I work in my art forms with text and music and visuals as well, and I could describe that what drove me in this whole negotiation with the text of Canetti was his overall sensitivity to totalitarian and colonialistic and power-driven strategies.

"That's something which is useful in all dimensions [including] Aborigines, but that was not a major focus of my work.

"The major focus was the sensitivity to feel dependencies, to feel moments of being oppressed by something, by hierarchies, in relationship between people, in relationship between mankind and non-human world, and how mankind tries to master nature but also in the very sensitive notion of how we use language, how we are used to creating power by using a certain language, or how does power work in general."

Goebbels repeated that he was "not a writer [but] I'd like to offer up these thoughts to your own responsibility, and how they might change your life".

The key title he suggested people read was Elias Canetti's 1960 book Crowds and Power, or Masse und Macht in the original German, a study of crowd dynamics or pack behaviour.