When I meet someone new and tell them that I write liner notes, it amazes me how many people have no clue what they are. But I suppose it makes sense. Unless you buy recordings of classical music, old film scores, or boxed sets, generally your liner notes consist of a tiny slip of paper that only lists track names and timings, maybe some lyrics, and the technical personnel behind the recording.
Over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate to write the liner notes for some interesting scores. Every label has their own format for liner notes, but some basic elements are required.
To write proper liner notes, I think you have to love research. Give me a quiet space and a stack of old clippings, reviews, and cue sheets and I’m one happy writer. I pull together pages and pages of notes before I ever write down a word, and a major chunk of that research ends up on the editing floor. I’ve been known to have a first draft of 10,000 words that needs to be cut down to 3,000 (or less). There’s a reason why writers need word counts.
I try to tell the story behind the film, pepper it with some juicy anecdotes (if there are any), and include a brief composer bio, relating the score to other projects during that period and/or his entire canon.
Readers want to know the story of the film. There are many scores I own where I’ve never seen the movie. Without some description of the story in the notes, I’d have no idea what the music was trying to do. The synopses I write tend to be shorter. I prefer to give the reader the overall arc of the film’s storyline, with just enough information to get them from beginning to end, and spare them every little detail. Other writers choose to do it differently. No one way is right or wrong.
How and where you discuss the score differs with each project. I prefer to tackle the major themes and interesting chords or instruments, providing a general overview of the music. If I can, I’ll save detailed discussion for the track-by-tracks.
Varese Sarabande, as well as Intrada and other labels, will combine the synopsis with the track-by-tracks into the overall structure of the notes, whereas Film Score Monthly uses the track-by-tracks to present a more detailed analysis of the score. Even with all my music training, I find writing track-by-tracks very difficult. How do you write about music so that the words go beyond simply saying what a violin or oboe is playing? How do you take those instruments and themes and show their relationship within the overall score as well as the underlying message that the composer may be trying to convey with regards to the story? And how do you do all of this in such a way that it is readable, intelligent, and not overly technical? Such are some of the challenges in writing track-by-tracks.
I wrote my first set of liner notes for Varese Sarabande’s cast album reissue of the 1969 Burt Bacharach-Hal David Broadway musical PROMISES, PROMISES. Since then I have written notes for limited edition releases of Ray Cook’s CAREFUL, HE MIGHT HEAR YOU, Hugo Friedhofer’s SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD/THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR, and Elmer Bernstein’s SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE and GHOSTBUSTERS.
Last year, I began writing for Film Score Monthly, with releases for AUNTIE MAME/ROME ADVENTURE (Bronislau Kaper and Max Steiner) and JOHN PAUL JONES/PARRISH (both Max Steiner) under my belt so far. Where before I had mainly written for original soundtracks these were reissues of old LPs. That presented new challenges. These four scores in particular were re-recordings and did not necessarily represent the exact cues as in the film. In addition, most of them included easy listening Side B programs that required research above and beyond those particular films.
Writing liner notes is a specific style of writing, and one in which I constantly learn new things. While I try and maintain as much of my voice as possible, the notes aren’t about me. They are not reviews or opinion pieces. My job is to convey the experience of the film and the music without gilding the lily. If you’ve seen the film already, you might glean new insight. If not, my notes ideally should pique your interest to see the film. Either way, hopefully I convey my passion for this art form I love so much.
And there endeth the semi-shameless plug.