John Psathas

Planet Damnation

Number of percussion players: 5

Total number of players: 1 + Orchestra

Instrumentation: Solo timpani (5 drums) + 2(pic).2.2.1+cbn / / 3 or 4 perc / str

[For percussion: tubular bells, bass drum, 1 roto-tom (tuneable to D flat and E flat), thunder sheet, orchestral snare drum, piccolo snare drum, wind chimes (high pitch), tambourine, finger cymbal, suspended cymbal (played with mallets) triangle, marimba, piatti, vibraphone, tamtam; Solo timpani: 5 drums – highest fixed at ‘c’ – to be placed at front of stage]


Approximate time: 10’ 00”


Planet Damnation is dedicated to Laurence Reese.


The composer sites the following passage from Robert Fisk’s ‘The Great War for Civilization,’ as the inspiration for Planet Damnation:

“There are no poets in Bravo Company of the US 24th Mechanised Infantry Division. They admit that their letters home are full of boredom and descriptions of the heat. They read a bit, sleep a bit, work a lot, mostly at night when the air cools. They live in a world of oppressive silence, so that you can hear Private Andrew Shewmaker rummaging around deep inside the hot bowels of his M-I tank. When he climbs out of the turret, he is clutching a folded sheet of brown cardboard. He leans his right elbow on the gun barrel and scuffs the glistening, sugary sand away with his left hand before sitting on the scorched outer casing of the armor. He unfolds the cardboard with great care, as if it is a love letter.

Running across it is a set of straight lines, intersecting and dividing in a series of perfectly drawn circles. Each circle possesses a name. Saturn, Pluto, Uranus, Mercury, Earth. At the top, in biro, an almost childish hand – it is Private Shewmaker’s – has underlined the words ‘Planet Damnation.’ It’s his idea. All you need is a dice. ‘I wanted to keep the guys from being bored,’ he says in a shy, embarrassed way. ‘We each start off in a spaceship from Planet Earth and have to travel far through space. At each planet – at Mars, say – we have to take on fuel. But distances are so great that we start running short. You have to try and reach just one more planet before you run out of gas and then you can refuel. The last person to keep going, he wins. The rest lose.’

Private Shewmaker does not realize, I think, that he has captured the lives of his tank crew on this creased, rectangular sheet of cardboard. Isolation, the desperate need for fuel, fear of the unknown. On the tank around him, and sitting in the sand beside his tracks, Shewmaker’s friends listen intently as he explains the board-game. In the eleven days since they settled into this immense, lonely planet, they have received no letters from home, no newspapers, no hot meals. Many of them have no maps. When they talk, they do so in a monologue, having thought a lot and spoken little since they arrived. On the other side of the gun barrel, Sergeant Darrin Johnson is sitting on his haunches, eyes focused on that point in the desert where the sand is so white and the blue sky so pale that the two become one. Not once does he look at you when he speaks. He has been married for just twenty days.


Annotated by Nicholas White