NEW YORK — Long before “interdisciplinary” became a cultural buzzword, Heiner Goebbels was smudging all manner of artistic boundaries. For the past three decades, Goebbels, 66, has been puzzling and invigorating audiences with works that aren’t quite concert music, theater, installation or performance art. His music has embraced rock, jazz, classical styles, voice, text and ambient sound with equal vigor.
In his latest work, “Everything That Happened and Would Happen,” which opens at the Park Avenue Armory on Monday and runs through Sunday, Goebbels takes on 20th-century European history in a characteristically elliptical fashion. He has created a phantasmagoric, ever-changing landscape permeated by spoken text and film, and populated by 12 dancers and five musicians who perform for almost three hours amid a plethora of constantly manipulated props and objects.
“Everything That Happened” was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, a British cultural program that marked the centennial of World War I, and produced with Artangel, an intrepid London-based company that also worked with Goebbels on “Stifters Dinge,” in 2007. The piece had its premiere last year in the cavernous disused Mayfield railway station in Manchester, England.
Although it contains no literal depictions of historical events, the work “evokes the ghosts of the entire 20th century,” Richard Morrison wrote in a review of the premiere in The Times of London, summing up the piece as “sometimes bewildering, occasionally boring, often bewitching and always bizarre.”
Pierre Audi, the artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory, said it is “one of those pieces you need to surrender to over time, and the length is important for that.”
In a telephone interview, Goebbels spoke about the inspirations for “Everything That Happened and Must Happen” and his collaborative creative process. But he remained noncommittal about its themes.
“In this landscape of micronarrations, voices, sounds, images which we present, I guess this question can only be answered individually,” he said.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Why did you want to make this piece?
A: I don’t make a decision to create a work unless I have four good reasons. The first here was that I had never worked with dancers, which I wanted to do. The second was that I wanted to use the scenic elements of John Cage’s “Europeras,” which I directed in 2012 when I was the director of the Ruhrtriennale. The third was Patrik Ourednik’s book, “Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century,” which I had read and found fascinating.
The fourth source was a program called “No Comment” from the Euronews television channel. Every hour, it shows a few minutes of news footage without any comment. In the show, we use the live footage of the day. You see the date and location, but nothing else is explained. You might see someone throwing a milkshake at Nigel Farage, or a school strike for climate change, or students with signs. I am like the viewer: I am not prepared, I don’t know what is coming. You have to make up your mind about what you see and hear. I love this, because it’s a strong intrusion of reality into the artificial world of performance, which I am always looking for.
Q: How did you move from these first ideas and sources to creating material?
A: I did four workshops with dancers, performers and musicians in Germany, France, Vietnam and Manchester to find a form, in which movements and objects, light and sounds, words and the news of the day can all contribute to what the piece is “about.”
We worked with theatrical props, with encounters with other realities in the form of objects, textures, materials. I am not a choreographer, and I told them this, but their movement is choreographed by what they need to do. I wanted to use dancers because I think that, like musicians, they have an instrumental relationship to their bodies; they don’t use their bodies to manifest “meaning” in the same ways as actors. They can simply be.
Q: What about the musicians? Is their material also improvised?
A: Yes, within certain guidelines. According to the order of scenes we developed specific guidelines together regarding intensity, character, timing, duration, instrumentation. Within these frames they react freely to each other every night, with instruments from different eras: a medieval analog organ, a saxophone, electronics, percussion and an ondes Martenot, a kind of early-20th-century synthesizer.
The music is improvised every night, the dancers have their own responses, and I don’t know what the news footage will be. In this way, the piece is a collaboration between musicians, dancers, unforeseeable news and the text, which takes on different resonances depending on all these other things. It’s not a strict composed machinery.
Q: But as the creator of the piece, you have to impose a structure?
A: Overall, I am a composer, and a piece like this is a composition of light, space, color, movement and sound. In the end, my decisions always have a musical reason, like a counterpoint between what we see and hear, or a polyphony composed of the video, the movement, sound and the light.
Music can touch you without you being able to name why. It offers you freedom in how you hear it, and you may hear it differently every time. This is the quality I want to transfer to a nonacoustic field, to theater.
Q: Ourednik’s book is a history of 20th-century Europe, starting with World War I. In creating this work, did you want to say something about Europe?
A: It is interesting that the text digresses radically from any linear chronology, and with a lot of humor. This digression can be a creative pleasure for an audience. Art and politics are a very difficult couple, and I believe that any piece of art, especially theater, can only be political in a nonintentional way, or it’s in danger of just making statements. I don’t want to make statements; I believe that in times of too many opinions, simplifications and too much ideological overflow, art can give us space to determine ourselves, to sharpen our perception, to mistrust what we hear, to look at the context in which things are said and why.
After “Stifters Dinge,” people said to me, “Finally: No one onstage telling me what to think.” I wanted to perpetuate that freedom for the viewer, so that people have space for the imagination.
‘Everything That Happened and Would Happen’
Monday through Sunday at the Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; armoryonpark.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.