21 YEARS OF FIELD NOTES: David Berridge reviews ‘A Dog at the Edge of Things’ by Angus Carlyle

When this book came in the post, I skipped over the section up front. I had read samples online and was here for the paragraphs that followed, their precision fidelity for atmospheres, a writing of almost ASMR-tingle micro-attentions.

All of which made a sound-art-meets-Alfred-Hayes-in-1950s-Los-Angeles noir, or, slightly less histrionically, a Marguerite Duras novel where the machinations of lovers in a beach side house got replaced by birds, branches, artist, clouds, recording equipment. So, one paragraph begins:

Moths shimmer in the beam, breath clouds sparkle, a bat flickers near the hedge and I’m crossing the field, the cows’ eyes glow. A steady circle shifts to two gleaming hemispheres (a flash of something twisted inside), first one cow lows, then another, hooves scrape stiff grasses, louder moans, snorts, thumps of momentum and my torch is off, arms slashing [. . . ]

Such moments, and the paragraphs Carlyle writes, edits and arranges of them, are the core of A Dog at the Edge of Things, a book, as the author describes on his website, that is ‘A compilation of 21 years of ‘field notes,’ gathered from various projects’.

Some were parts of other books, like A Downland Index, which involved 100 slow runs on chalk downs above Brighton, each written up in 100 word texts (five are included here, with the source mentioned, but not an explanation of the original procedure).

Others have come from talks, blogs, seminars, in fact all the many media and locations where an artist makes, writes, talks as and about their work. Sometimes more than one paragraph is selected (and there are also sections using dialogue or shorter forms), but it is these single text blocks that make me want to fathom the determinants, volumes, limits and possibilities of Carlyle’s conception of ‘field notes’, whose quote marks on his website indicate – what? A type, an appropriation of a method, a form of knowledge, a nod to something not fully adopted, questioned.

I quickly sketch out a set of influences, ideas, histories that inform this writing. A mode of attention focused upon sound, location and the body, distilled into the collection of exercises comprising composer Pauline Oliveros’ 1974 workbook Sonic Meditations.

Combine with a range of writing practices, including the plain but psychologically-charged tone of Nouveau Roman, the constraints and procedures of Oulipo and Conceptual writing, plus self-reflexive writing practices from anthropology.

For this last, I single out Kathleen Stewart’s books Ordinary Affects and The Hundreds (written with Lauren Berlant). This later involved writing 100-word language units that were ‘exercises on following out the impact of things (words, thoughts, people, objects, ideas, worlds)’.

As with individual sections, so the whole book: ‘We don’t want to say much in advance about what kind of event of reading or encounter the book can become. We tried not to provide even this preliminary.

Whilst this framework is my own construction, it suggests a context and history for Carlyle’s writing which mixes place, ecology, phenomenology, writing and technology – with origins in sound art.

I began to compare examples of paragraph-long ‘field notes’ by different writers. Here, I’ll quote just two, beginning with the end of Carlyle’s ‘hundred’ quoted in its beginning above: 

[. . . ] stumbling sightless down the valley, legs twisting and slipping, feet skating across cowpats, toes stubbing flints and climbing the steep far slope, staggering between gorse bushes to the gate, fumbling the catch and pushing through, leaning back, grinning, rasping, sweating.

Second, Budhaditya Chattopadhyay, from his The Nomadic Listener,  where each text is divided in equal halves across the top of a two-page spread. Ink wash drawings of audio waveforms appear in the white space below, and a QR code at the front of the book links to the corresponding field recording. Here is the verso:

Where are all the people going? The place they are leaving behind for a forthcoming place may resist being abandoned. Perhaps the place-then is partly carried in the dust on the shoes, in the heaviness of the footsteps, in used clothes inside the luggage dragged on the floor, or in the sighs of the one sitting at the window of a tram ready to leave the station for the

Both paragraphs evidence a strong sense of focus that commits to an unfolding attention. No ruptures in the developing prose mass on the page, but openness to each moment’s emergent flux.

Even if Chattopadhyay doesn’t have a formal word limit, we still sense the constraints imposed by the books design and the overall frame of his field encounters. He begins with a question and there are always thoughts entwined with what he sees.

In Carlyle there is a strong sense of notation, the accumulating details threaded together as he stumbles across a field, a soundscape of which – ‘grinning, rasping, sweating’ – his own body becomes a part.

I read Carlyle’s book in bursts, absorbed in each paragraph as it comes along, its atmosphere and authorial style. Sometimes a series of short chapters suggest overarching themes and ideas, which I try to follow. So, where he writes of making recordings of ‘animals, insects, foliage, weather’, these merge with radio static of pilots in the sky who ‘plot the contours of a topography of managed space’ that extends upwards into space and out across time zones.

What is the quality of human presence here? Not solely a controlling, exploitative force, but an extension into histories beyond its own evolution: ‘What was heard before we drew the animals to our streets [. . . ] What sounded before our own ears were gifted us by things that slithered and swam?

How should we move, record, and write, after realising this? Carlyle sometimes opts for lists, divided only by commas, a full stop at the end, beyond the measure of a single breath or a gaze.

There is writing here, too, of feeling, ideas, argument, memory, biography, and anecdote, but there is always a control exerted by ‘atmosphere’. On p.87-8 is a ‘chapter’ of four paragraphs I first read as one continuous narrative. Maybe it is four different ‘field notes’, held together not by a narrative in linear time and space, but by continuations and connections of ‘atmosphere’ – winter, sea, cold, dusk. I do not need to resolve this.

Finally, to that front matter. No table of contents, but a two part index. The first lists keywords: E has entries for Ears, Echo, Europe, Extra-terrestrial and Eye. For Ears, the references are not page numbers but the acronyms BMG, NG, MON1, CITY2 and CLAP2.

A second ‘index’ explains these: ‘NG’Carlyle also adds ‘+’ for a rejected piece of writing, a triangle for a piece unpublished (until now). Like all Carlyle’s taxonomic devices, the nod to some total system explaining the origins and nature of each piece of writing intentionally reveals the lacunae of such ambitions. is National Gallery, a talk Carlyle gave as part of the Soundscapes exhibition in 2015. There are no page numbers, so I go flicking through the book, eyeing acronyms printed at the bottom of each page if I want to find anything.

Another impulse strips writings of their original context, seeking fragments and paragraphs that possess affective charge, to arrange them in new sequences and make books like this one.  

There are other ways for the complexities of atmosphere – in which bodies, art and writing are embedded – to come figure on the page.

Amongst recent publications that also come from a frame of sound art, experimental writing, and self-reflexive anthropology: Brandon La Belle’s Dreamtime X is a lockdown diary of 100 (again) short entries, with text arranged across the page, its words and phrases isolated, white space to open up alternative rhythms of phrasing and punctuation, both in and between lines.

Or consider Helen Frosi’s aspects of the morning, its series of loose (but page-numbered) cards in an envelope, chronicling an exploration of London’s Lea Valley.

Some pages read like concrete poetry or scores for sound poems, other cards suggest ‘field notes’, or field poetics. I was surprised on the final cards to find a bibliography revealing many entries to be found texts, suggesting each page as a mix of walks, thinking, and smartphone googling, the moment itself and later unfolding and arrangement.

Carlyle is also, of course, making choices about breath and rhythm as much as anyone scattering words and syllables across recto and verso. The final pages of A Dog at the Edge of Things are six chapters, one paragraph each, a final survey of ‘field note’ possibility.

Once again, I try to balance absorption in the moment of each paragraph with noting wider patterns. On p. 91 Carlyle describes faces encountered in public space via adverts and magazines, how the eyes become a focus of attention regardless of their priority in the composition’s structure.

Is this reflecting how the writer seeks the zone of affect in a situation divergent to any pre-existing sense of form and importance? Is this like the truck driver’s personalisation of their cab through mementoes and homeware, described on the book’s final page?

Again, Carlyle’s preferred form is a paragraph of multiple details, not necessarily unfolding in a specific location and moment, but strung on a single sentence thread of affective similarity, by an eye-mind partial to a contingent logic.

The only conclusion is Carlyle’s closing comment: ‘these are just some of the elements that contributed to providing each moment with its own peculiarity.’ I checked back as I wrote on my laptop to see if it was ‘particularity’. No! It is the peculiar particular which is sought, although the presence of the body is also felt, the author’s physical state as part of what he experiences and records, but also the pull of human to human despite the world’s varied demands on our attention.

So, as Carlyle writes, ‘the camera shifts without guile from a detached distance to movements that betray the body.’ Or, elsewhere, the body’s reminder in the text’s wandering litany of the inability to continue any further without urinating’. On the next page, he says there is ‘no walking away from the busker who started up her violin on the Vancouver underground’.

The ‘field note’ concludes when its gathering exists as atmosphere, epistemological project, authorial statement and loss, all certain and changeable as air, body, sea, car, and microphone.

To go back to where I started, did this really make Marguerite Duras an early proponent of ASMR ecological sound art writing erotics? Maybe.

After reading Carlyle’s book I looked in Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary for a quote where Barthes writes (as I remember it) that the written diary is useful only as a mnemonic for the vastness of what is unwritten. Was that relevant here? I must have felt something was. But the quote must be somewhere else, if it exists. I find instead another of Barthes’ memos made in grief: ‘In taking these notes, I’m trusting myself to the banality that is in me.’

Which is a word to describe the openness it takes to write these field notes: of position, activity, practice, body, to realise, record, keep, process, now, not now, until, as, when, and, if.

About our contributor

David Berridge lives in Hastings, East Sussex and writes reviews and essays, particularly around artists’ books, small publishers, and unusual forms of fiction, poetry and essay. He publishes on Substack as Hugo Pictor’s Good Eye, where he writes about “art writing, art catalogues, art books, art bookshops, disgruntlement and medieval illumination“.

One response to “21 YEARS OF FIELD NOTES: David Berridge reviews ‘A Dog at the Edge of Things’ by Angus Carlyle”

  1. […] great essay in the Glasgow Review of Books about “A Dog at the Edge of Things,” the review makes connections that I had always […]

Leave a Reply


The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

Find us on: