Early in his career, Cage dispensed with the commonly held notion that pitch was the core element of music. Instead he placed significant emphasis on rhythm and timbre. The results were chamber pieces of great ingenuity that utilized dramatic dynamic range, engaging rhythmic activity, and sensitivity to orchestration via unconventional sounds. Much like prepared piano, percussion provided an ideal means for Cage to develop his own unique voice – thus distinguishing himself from other twentieth century composers (despite the clear influence of Henry Cowell). Additionally, Cage’s percussion pieces served as the ideal medium to further experiment with serialism (as it pertained to form and rhythm), born of his study with Arnold Schoenberg.
Percussion ensemble is an uncommon form of chamber music, more popular in academia than in the concert hall. For this genre, Cage’s compositions from 1936 to 1943 remain highly celebrated and are actually considered standard literature. The Trio (1936) is an effective three-movement piece consisting of simple fixed rhythmic patterns played on an assortment of drums and blocks of wood (as opposed to traditional woodblocks). By 1941, Cage expanded his use of polyrhythms and used a larger palette of sounds for his Third Construction. One year later, Cage twisted common march rhythmic gestures on tin cans for his Imaginary Landscape No. 2 (March No. 1). By comparison, Amores (1943) sounds more approachable than its peer works: Framed by two movements for solo prepared piano, Cage included a new percussion trio for drums, tin cans, and shakers, and also recycled one of the Trio movements.