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From Eicher to Eno, producers are auteurs of modern music

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Shawn Sensiba
November 21, 2012

Recently I watched the documentary "Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher." The film profiles German music producer Manfred Eicher. Anyone familiar with ECM Records knows this artist's name. ECM specializes in an icy, elegant music that mixes jazz and classical elements. As the title implies, it is the silences that matter as much as anything in this music. In some circles, the label might be as well known for the austere art direction of its releases as its music.

I recommend "Sounds" to fans of the label and Eicher. It offers a glimpse of the workings of this ubiquitous producer and how his creative process works. Eicher started ECM, which stands for Edition of Contemporary Music, in 1969. Its roster of artists includes Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Ralph Towner and many others. "Sounds" documents the travels of a man obsessed with sound and with capturing that sound for others to hear. It was a pleasure to see this singular music being created.

Watching "Sounds," I was struck by the critical importance of a producer to music. Music starts with an artist or group of artists, but it is the producer who creates the setting for the music and makes sure that the vision is correctly recorded. The producer shapes it, giving it its popular appeal and its aesthetic.

Imagine the Beatles without George Martin. The four lads were great musicians and great musical talents, but they didn't know a lot about the recording process when they first went into a studio. Martin helped them. He knew technology. He knew about creating arrangements and instrumentation. His value to the legacy of the Beatles certainly justifies the occasional reference to Martin as "the Fifth Beatle."

Think of producers as musical auteurs. These creative artists help and shape others by offering their vision. It might be only barely audible or it might be obvious, but producers play a crucial role in the music we enjoy.

My list of favorite music producers includes Eicher, Brian Eno, T-Bone Burnett, Rick Rubin and Daniel Lanois.

Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno (yes, that is his full name) is the ultimate studio wonk. Recording on his own and with a stunning variety of bands, Eno has crafted a place in any musical hall of fame. He started as a member of Roxy Music and has produced David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, Devo, Robert Fripp, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode and Paul Simon, among many others. He might be the leading proponent of ambient music, but more importantly, he understands how to put a band or an artist in the right musical setting. Recently, Eno offered a solo album, "Lux." It returns to the minimalism he dabbles in from time to time.

T-Bone Burnett works in a different part of town. Among his production credits are Roy Orbison, Allison Krauss and Robert Plant, Elton John and Leon Russell, Lisa Marie Presley, The Bodeans, John Mellencamp, Los Lobos and many others. Burnett also has directed the musical compilations for "O Brother Where Art Thou" and "The Hunger Games," among others films. He also played in the Rolling Thunder Revue with Bob Dylan and has a distinguished solo career. He is simply one of the most versatile and knowledgeable musical talents on today's scene. His current project is producing the music for the ABC TV show "Nashville."

Do you pay attention to who produces a musical work? Do you have a favorite producer? Are you more likely to buy an album by an artist if that artist is working with a favorite producer? Please share your thoughts with us.

Follow Shawn Sensiba on Twitter @shawnsensiba.



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