Decoding the composition
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Commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Planet Damnation showcases the timpani and the virtuosic skills of Laurence Reese, in a solo role. Inspired by the timpani's dual nature of percussive power and melodic expressiveness, I aimed to create a piece that allowed the timpani to sing in its unique way, featuring passages where the instrument finds its melodic voice. Drawing influences from martial music and action movie soundtracks, the composition exudes a sense of intensity and overwhelming power, reflecting the challenge and dynamism of the timpani as a solo instrument. The premiere of Planet Damnation took place on October 19, 2007, at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington, New Zealand, with Laurence Reese performing alongside the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.


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Planet Damnation: Wind Band
$ 50.00 NZD
Looking to feature timpani within your wind band? This arrangement of the timpani concerto Planet Damnation transcribed by Jim Daughters is perfect for you. The product contains a PDF of the full score. A complete set of performance materials can be hired direct from john@jpsathas.com. #Timpani #Winds
Score - PDF
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Planet Damnation: Concerto
$ 40.00 NZD
Are you a timpanist preparing Planet Damnation? Then this product is what you need to take you performance to the next level, with the download containing a set of seven MP3 practice tracks with varied tempi from 110bpm to 126bpm perfect for your practice. #Timpani
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Planet Damnation (timpani concerto)

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Project Details

Planet Damnation (timpani concerto)

Concerto for Solo Timpani and Orchestra

Commissioner: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

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

Premiered by Laurence Reese (timp) & the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, on October 19, 2007 at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Difficulty Level:
Instrument Tags:
French Horn
Mixed Percussion
Double Bass

From the Composer

I’ve always been drawn to the timpani because of their duality, they can be both powerfully percussive and melodically expressive. Having been an admirer of Larry’s playing for many years I was looking for an opportunity to create a work that featured the timpani (and in particular, Larry) in a solo role. A number my recent concerti for other instruments (particularly the piano concerto “Three Psalms”, and the saxophone concerto “Zahara”) have had very important and active timpani parts.

A composer usually has many goals when writing any work, some are general ongoing compositional motivations, others are specific to the work in hand. In Planet Damnation I wanted very much to allow the timpani to sing – in their own unique way – and there are passages in the piece where the timpani really do find their melodic voice, playing lines that one could sing along to.

Writing for the timpani in a solo role made it possible to create a piece that was dynamic and full of powerful energy. After all, the timpani is one of the very few instruments which is not in danger of being drowned out by the orchestra. So, although the work is short, it is very intense much of the time. I was keen to create something that felt massive, and almost overwhelming. There is nothing in the repertoire for timpani that is as challenging for the performer as this work.

The title refers to a chapter in Robert Fisk’s book ‘The Great War For Civilization’. There are plenty of obvious (and some not too obvious) references to martial music in this piece. It is also has qualities of (and references to) action-movie or war-movie soundtracks.

The Inspiration

The following passage from Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation was 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 realise, 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.”

Robert Fisk

Full Instrumentation

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

Solo timp (5 drums)

2 Flute (dbl pic)
2 Oboe
2 Clarinet

4 Horn
3 Trumpet
3 Trombone

3 or 4 Percussion



From a short interview:

1. Are there influences from other musical styles on Planet Damnation (melody, harmony, or rhythm that refer to music from other cultures)?

I took influence from musical styles that have been used traditionally to represent and depict heroism and militarism. So there are obvious references to the kind of music you would hear in movies during scenes of battles and conflicts, or with heroic deeds. For this piece I also made use of my transcriptions of Iranian frame drumming. I applied these rhythmically detailed phrasings and ‘melodies’ to the timpani. If you want to check out who I was transcribing, click here.

2. What process did you carry out for the instrumental selection of the orchestra as accompaniment?

The challenge with writing a concerto for timpani is the difficulty of having the timpani project a foreground melodic line that is clearly discernible when the orchestra is also playing. My approach to this was to double the timpani with other instruments that helped to push the melodic line to the foreground. But to avoid the doubling instrument (say the oboe) becoming the ‘main’ instrument and the timpani feeling like it the accompaniment, I changed the doubling orchestral instruments frequently so the listener’s ear would always go back to the timpani in order to be able to follow the main melodic narrative.

3. During the composition process, was there any socio-cultural or philosophical event by which the work was created? Is there any intention of dealing with any non-musical or special theme in this work?

I had just read Robert Fisk’s book, 'The Great War for Civilisation’ and I was feeling very strongly how humans have always been drawn to conflict on a mass scale. I was quite depressed about our ‘nature’, and wanted to express how – in very public ways - we glorify and celebrate conflict and war. Eventually this led me to create my largest-scale work.

So you could say that Planet Damnation is a somewhat ironic, cynical representation of heroism. The timpani are, along with the snare drum, classic instruments for representing the military, and power.

4. What characteristics could you consider to be the contribution in your work to the percussion repertoire as unique or with the label of John Psathas?

I don ‘t have a clear perspective on my work and how it sits in the percussion repertoire. I do approach every new work with the aim to create something that is not in the repertoire yet. I think Planet Damnation (and my later work for solo timpani Buyan - are unlike other solo timpani repertoire. When you compare them to Elliott Carter’s 8 pieces, they are from different universes. The most notable characteristics in my percussion music is that is incorporates a range of non-classical influences (jazz, world, pop, electronica). Planet Damnation is quite a ‘classical’ piece when compared with my other percussion works, such as One Study One Summary.

5. Composer Iannis Xenakis had a solid knowledge of architecture and other sciences that influenced his way of composing. I would like to know if the same thing happened in your case with Planet Damnation from other disciplines.

No. My way of composing is almost the opposite to Xenakis in the sense that I begin every piece with a tiny fragment of materials (the first few seconds). I spend a great deal of time finding the beginning. That involves a lot of failure. Something I’ve developed over time is an improved ability to sense the potential in a small amount of material. After quite a bit of trying and failing I’ll arrive at the first few seconds of a new piece. At some point, I’ll know that this is it, the ‘stuff’. And then all I aim for is the next few seconds. The relationship between the first few seconds and the next few seconds tells me a great deal about what might be ahead. But at this stage in the process, there are near-infinite possibilities. So I start exploring. I slowly extend the piece forwards deciding solely on the grounds of whether the new few seconds feel right. I am utterly ruthless about allowing any material the right to exist in the work.

6. What electronic process did you use to create the timpani accompaniment?

I mostly work with Logic (on an iMac), and I have a parallel portable setup in a MacBook pro with identical sample libraries.  I also have an upright piano, where I spend a lot of time thrashing out ideas. Connected to the computer there’s a Nord Stage II for playing with the ideas in a virtual instrument environment.

I have a lot of sample libraries. Vienna, East West, Kontakt, 8Dio, ModWheel, and more recently the new (and amazing) Spitfire libraries.

I still write out my scores with pencil and paper then give to a typesetter who creates the Sibelius files. I’ve just finished writing out a new percussion concerto and calculated that across all of the instruments involved, I hand-wrote just under 30,000 bars. The reason I stick to this process is that it allows a one-time-only intimate exploration of every single event in the music. It’s incredibly valuable and very important for really knowing the details of one’s work (which helps a lot in rehearsal).

Working with sample libraries allows me to hear everything as it’s forming, and test countless options. If I’m exploring a possible syncopation in a bar of one instrument within an ensemble, I’ll usually try out every possible position of that rhythmic disruption to be sure my initial instinct has put it in the best possible place. It’s very detailed, exacting work, but in itself is an ongoing and very fertile learning process.

7. What ideas could you share to understand the piece and bring my interpretation closer to the essence that you tried to convey in the score?

For the soloist the idea is one of heroism. This is automatic when you are the soloist in a concerto anyway. You are the hero of the work. But also, the solo part in this piece is shaped by the idea of confidence, physical power, a big ‘voice’ (equal to the orchestra), and a unique balance of rhythmic and melodic expressivity (something that is uniquely possible with the timpani). I have tried hard to make the timpani really sing in a lot of this piece. I think it’s important as the performer to really sing the lines you are playing in Planet Damnation.