Eraritjaritjaka

A Sydney Festival centrepiece ... the string quartet on stage.

The Nobel prize-winning philosopher and novelist Elias Canetti defined the Aboriginal word Eraritjaritjaka as ''full of desire for something that has been lost''. The word turns up in his notebooks, published in 1992 under the title The Agony of Flies. It is a collection of disjointed flashes of thought exploring his lifelong tussle with the ambiguity of language, the problems of power and the mystery of love.

Challenging reading and not, perhaps, an obvious text to inspire a performance. But for Heiner Goebbels, reading The Agony of Flies ignited a desire to share Canetti's work with others.

''I read them over and over again. They made me ask questions of myself about my perspective on reality and on politics,'' says the Frankfurt musician, composer and theatre director. But how to translate an individual's pleasure of discovery into a communal experience? How to convey Canetti's ideas without preaching? How to leave the audience with the same freedom of thought as a solitary reader?

It took many years. Finally, in 2003, five years on from his initial reading, Goebbels assembled his tools: musicians, lights, scenery, sound and amplification systems, words and, last but not least, the French actor and long-time Goebbels collaborator Andre Wilms. Together they experimented with the juxtaposition of elements to take an audience on a thought journey.

From this initial workshop, Goebbels crafted Eraritjaritjaka, a music and theatre work for string quartet and actor. It has its Australian premiere in the Sydney Festival.

The festival's director, Lieven Bertels, views Eraritjaritjaka as a centrepiece of his first festival. ''It glues together so beautifully all those elements we call theatre: great light design, great sound, great idea, amazing actor directorship, with Heiner Goebbels and Andre Wilms. It's such a beautiful, profound, subtle way of presenting a whole range of musics. Without even having to go to a concert, you've just been to one of the most exciting concerts in your life.''

Goebbels's repertoire is dizzying. He is artistic director of the International Festival of the Arts Ruhrtriennale and a professor of applied theatre studies at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen. He began his career as a jazz and art-rock performer, moved into writing music for theatre, then composing, writing and directing complete plays and staged concerts. He regularly works with Ensemble Modern and Frankfurt Opera, has had commissions from the Berlin Philharmonic, and his theatre works are seen at festivals and prestigious venues around the world.

The work that has come to Australia illustrates his range: Hashirigaki - a hit of the 2004 Sydney Festival - combines the words of Gertrude Stein with the music of the Beach Boys. Stifter's Dinge, starring a menagerie of mechanised pianos and other gadgets, plus faceless technicians, played at the 2010 Melbourne Festival.

But what is Eraritjaritjaka about?

Goebbels's answer is predictably elusive. ''It's about everybody. It's about everybody's reality. And it's about music, images, about wonderful texts.

''It raises many questions which you have to ask yourself. For example, there is one line in Canetti which says: I am not able to live with anybody, I am not able to live without anybody, so how is it possible to live?

''I'm not providing the answers. I want to share the thoughts I had when I was reading; I want to share the sensitivity of Canetti's observations.''

One of the ways he does this is through music. The Mondriaan Quartet specialises in 20th-century music, and Goebbels chose works from their repertoire to frame the words and action. Many reflect Canetti's fascination with the nexus between private and public politics: Shostakovich's Quartet No.8, for example, is dedicated to the ''victims of fascism and war'', and is written from within a totalitarian regime. It is, however, also intensely personal, shot through with self-quotations and quotations from the musical ancestors that made Shostakovich who he was.

The multivalent nature of the music matches Goebbels's multidimensional approach to language and to theatre. Eraritjaritjaka is not, however, one big collage of overlapping layers: each element is choreographed, framed, presented with the precision of a single brushstroke.

''I like a certain separation of the elements,'' Goebbels says. ''I like when there is a gap between what we see and what we hear. This gap is creating our imagination because we want to connect the voices we hear with the elements on stage, so we try to fill this gap.''

Eraritjaritjaka plays at the Theatre Royal from Wednesday to January 13 for the Sydney Festival.