The Many Soundscapes of PLEASURE MACHINE
I recently had the opportunity to listen to Pleasure Machine, a nine-episode adventure in aural storytelling created by Colt Coeur in association with creative producer Emma Orme, director Tara Elliott and writers Diane Exavier, May Treuhaft-Ali, and Phaedra Michelle Scott. As a Black female artist, it is always exciting to come across creative content that I find relatable to my own experiences in the artistic industries. This audio play tackles questions of the struggles of being a BIPOC creator in a fake-woke world, effects of capitalism on the female body, and the duality of being both firmly ensnared in consumer culture while fighting against it. The creators have successfully explored these themes and more, simply with the power of sound.
From the moment the first episode begins, I was enveloped in a diverse soundscape of warm overlapping vocalizations and vibrations that set the auditory stage for this story about H, the wellness influencer with a podcast who is constantly being bombarded by the sharp, discordant noise of the corporate world. When H is doing what they love, being creative and pouring into the members of their community, the surrounding sounds are pleasant and hauntingly ethereal. But this auditory haven has its barriers. The clashes of strained familial relationships, the booms of student loan debt, and the clangs of their niece Josephine’s worsening anxiety disorder make up the soundscape of H’s reality. H takes pride in being a fiercely independent creator, but when it becomes evident that Josephine needs expensive medical attention that her mother refuses to pay for, H has to consider taking support from outside of their community.
Tech company CEO Kane, a man who nauseatingly identifies all of his social privileges before he speaks, represents everything that H cannot stand. He is a man who monetizes performative wokeness; he leads a team whose focus is social justice but their initiatives don’t prove to make any tangible change other than lining their pockets. As insufferable as Kane may be, he takes interest in H’s work in their time of need. He speaks in thinly veiled condescension as he offers H the financial backing that they desperately need, offering an amount of money that can only be described with a cacophony of gambling machine noises, cash register dings, and arcade game prize alarms. That much. H’s instinct is to decline but the loud protesting of their subconscious becomes dampened as they consider the way this money could change their life. Will H give into the money hungry racket of Kane’s corporation?
As I listened, I found myself identifying with H. Being a Black woman in an industry that finally seems to be consistently and intentionally prioritizing diversity, it can be hard sometimes to decipher if I am being celebrated or exploited. Success is rarely uncomplicated. If I am presented with an exciting opportunity and I learn that the space that I am being welcomed into is predominately white, my personal celebration of my accomplishment is always cut short by the nagging echos these questions: Am I here to reach your quota, to mask all of your less-than-woke wrongdoings? Or are you genuinely interested in my story, in promoting and supporting my voice? I always hope the answer is ‘yes, obviously’ but if I am unsure, would moving forward with these opportunities be some form of self-betrayal? But on the other hand, should I allow this uncertainty to consistently stand in the way of my paycheck?
As a young artist, financial anxiety is all too familiar to me. Being a young person trying to make money and build wealth of any kind in 2021 seems to be nothing but a pipe dream. As I listened, I asked myself, is H’s collaboration with Kane indication that they are selling out? Some would argue that there is nothing wrong with money from those who have too much and using it to support yourself and your community— a creative Robin Hood of sorts. I don’t disagree. But is taking advantage of a convenient situation the same as being complicit? By taking the money are we condoning the process by which it arrived in our hands? I don’t have an answer. But listening to Pleasure Machine gives me the opportunity to consider these questions.
Pleasure Machine pays homage to Sophie Treadwell’s play Machinal that used sound to draw a direct parallel between the sound pollution caused by the advancing industrialization of the world and the main character’s personal lack of peace. Pleasure Machine director Tara Elliott was revisiting this play and exploring the idea of adapting it as a radio drama as she was studying adrienne maree brown’s “Pleasure Activism.” Elliott thought applying what she learned to an adaptation of Machinal made perfect sense considering how “noisy and claustrophobic” both Machinal and the world of pandemic-era theatre are. The internet thrives on providing its users with constant stimulation and theatre existed almost exclusively on the internet for the better part of the last two years. Thus, every thespian’s email inbox was completely bombarded with pinging and dinging of zoom links and eventbrite invites: noisy and claustrophobic.
There are many connections between Machinal and Pleasure Machine from similarity of themes to the use of sound as the foundation for the narrative. Machinal used sound to draw a direct parallel between the sound pollution caused by the advancing industrialization of the world and the main character’s personal lack of peace. The sounds of industry and productivity droned on, incessant and draining to the point that the sounds’ origins were unclear; the sounds were coming both from within and without her; she, as a human, was inseparable from the sounds industry. In Pleasure Machine, the sounds of factory culture have been replaced with those of trendy big-tech office culture and incessant Instagram ads. Kane’s character is similar to that of George H. Jones in Machinal: he is a man with enough money and influence to fix any problem. Kane’s presence is underscored by noise that drones on and on, much like the clacking and tapping of the typewriters in Machinal. The sound pushes and prods H as he coerces them to take his financial support. As I listened, I wondered if H, like Machinal’s Helen Jones, would be overcome by this generation’s sounds of industry.
After being awarded the grant, Elliott and Orme began assembling a dynamic group of writers and collaborators to bring this project into reality; an intensive interview process began, with femme BIPOC creators being called to the front. Starr Busby, a Brooklyn based sound artist, was an easy pick and one of the first artists to join the team. The character of H was actually inspired by Busby and their work. Busby not only starred in Pleasure Machine but also composed original music for each episode. They, along with the sound team at UptownWorks— musicians/sound designers Daniela Hart, Bailey Trierweiler, and Noel Nichols— got to work alongside the podcast’s writers on a long devising process, writing workshops, multiple recording sessions, and music making. I think all that hard work is audible; it really paid off.
Pleasure Machine was an exciting opportunity for me to consider questions of my own involvement in industrial complexes as an artist. It challenged my own opinions on the idea “selling out” and what that even means, and it also made me feel less alone in my struggle to create art in a world that enjoys admiring the arts without providing the support that artists need to create. If you’re like me and are in need of a new story, a challenge, a bit of solidarity, or just the chance to turn off the noise of everyday life even if it’s just for a moment, give Pleasure Machine a listen.
PLEASURE MACHINE, Colt Coeur’s first-ever podcast, launched on November 2nd and has released a new episode every week since. To listen to all nine episodes, get a podcast pass at coltcoeur.org/pleasuremachine.