technique

Swazzle

Country

A small apparatus placed in the mouth between the tongue, the roof of the mouth and the upper-teeth, with the aim of modifying the voice. This vocal accessory can be compared to the reed of an oboe. A voice accessory/modifier has different names, depending on the country. In England it is variously called punch-calls, swozzle, swazzle, swatchel, schwazzle, or roo-ti-toot-toot. In France it is the pratique, short for siffletpratique. It is a pichtchik in Russia, and a ru-tyu-tyu in the Ukraine. In Italy it is known as fischio or pivetta. In Spain it is called lengüeta, cerbatana or pito, a vocal accessory used by Spanish puppeteers at least since the 17th century, with its characteristic sound, “ti ti”. In Catalan it is the güijola. In Rajasthan, India, it is called a booli. It is called u-dyu-dyu in China. In Iran it is a sootak or safir, while in Egypt it is called amana.

The English swazzle is a device made of two strips of metal bound around a cotton tape reed. The device is used to produce the distinctive harsh, rasping voice of Punch and is held in the mouth by the Professor (puppet master) in a Punch and Judy show.

The French pratique (sifflet-pratique) consists of a fine, vibrating blade made of animal skin, bark or wood, placed between two pieces of wood or leather or even placed on a sort of comb. In his Recherches sur la France, Étienne Pasquier spoke of the pratique as follows: “A buffoon named Constantin, who imitated all sorts of voices, died some twelve or thirteen years ago: he would sing the nightingales’ song …then a donkey’s music, followed by the sound of three or four dogs fighting …With a comb in his mouth, he imitated the sound of a cornett (cornet à bouquin).” (Le Magasin Pittoresque, 1833).

The swazzle, pratique and all their voice modifying cousins are not to be confused with membranophones or kazoos, which are instruments consisting of a tube and a vibrating skin with which one can speak or sing by placing it on the lips, outside of the mouth.

Voice accessories/modifiers are used whenever a voice needs to be deformed in order for it to correspond with a character’s physique or personality, or inversely to make him singular and render him surreal. It is found in Rajasthan, India, for example, to deform the voice of kathputli performers who must speak “like the serpent”. It is the voice of the puppet characters, especially Mobarak, in Iran’s marionette theatre. And it is this which gives both Punch (Great Britain) and Polinchelle (France), their characteristically shrill, whistling voices. It is used for the character Petrushka, with his high-pitched voice, in Eastern Europe. The Egyptian Aragoz, like the shrill-voiced Petrushka, Pulcinella, Polichinelle, Punch, Mobarak, and their kind, expresses himself with a copper whistle called amana.

In Africa, a voice modifier is used in Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sometimes referred to as an amulet, it is made of ivory, ostrich egg shells, bones, bamboo or silver.

The whistling, chirping, otherworldly sound of the Iranian safir distorts the human voice to create a puppet language in the kheimeh shab bazi marionette play (also known as the Shah Salim bazi). The safir traditionally consisted of two thin gold sheets but brass or another metal is currently used. A piece of cloth or hide is placed between the two metal sheets and the three pieces are bound with string. The safir is about 1 centimetre wide and around 2 centimetres long.

In China the u-dyu-dyu dates to the Tang period. “Under the Mongolian Dynasty, there were voice modifiers made of iron, whilst the vast majority were made of bamboo or any other kind of vegetable matter. It served to mark the entrance of a puppet on stage, the cry of a cockerel or the neighing of a horse. It is also used in spoken dialogue when a single puppeteer must play several characters, in order to clearly indicate the differences of their voices: in this case, it is used for female voices.” (Jacques Pimpaneau, Des poupées à l’ombre, 1977).
    Nonetheless, this instrument can reveal itself to be dangerous. It is said that the old Borgniet, the founder of a French family of travelling puppeteers, swallowed his pratique in 1866 and died choking in his own theatre whilst trying to portray Polinchelle.

Sergei Obraztsov, at the age of twenty and desiring to perfect his technique, met an itinerant puppeteer, Ivan Afinogenovitch Zaytsev. “I pleaded with my host to show me how to produce the piercing voice of Petrushka. He thus took from a box a small packet, removing the paper it was wrapped in, then a small silver whistle enveloped in a tissue: this whistle was in fact two blades joined by a thin ribbon. Zaytsev put the object in his mouth, moved his lips, probably to place it further in his mouth, and proceeded to produce Petrushka’s strident voice, ‘I’m dy-iiing’, he continued to perform alone, switching from Petrushka’s voice to his own, which required him to push the whistle against his cheek each time … ” (My Profession, Moscow, Raduga, 1985).    

In England, the design of the swazzle was once a secret guarded by the Professors and only taught to those with a genuine respect for and interest in learning the performance of Punch and Judy puppetry. The device can now be bought from joke and magic shops, although those swazzles made according to the traditional design are smaller and are generally considered superior.

(See also Punch and Judy College of Professors, Punch and Judy Fellowship, Safir, Secrecy, Voice.)