In the print version of Puppetry International #23 (Voice and the Puppet), Professor Foley looked specifically at the voices associated with the wayang golek purwa (the Indonesian rod puppet tradition in which she also performs). In this complete version of the article, she also examines why puppet speech is altered by the reed—known as swazzle to English speakers familiar with Punch—which is an example of the “ur” voice of the puppet. - Editor

The Voice of the Puppet: General Principles and Southeast Asian Models
by Kathy Foley



Puppeteers have noted with amazement that there is a consistent use of a reed for the voice of the puppet from India to England. The kathaputli of Rajasthan in India have the same squeak (though their reed is the called the boli) as the Italian pivetta, and the English swazzle. This has led some to wonder if the swazzle traveled with low class groups from the northern area of India across to Europe. Were troublemaking gypsies who European histories first started discussing in the 1200s the carriers? Could the reed voice have come through the Middle East in the early renaissance along the trade routes at about the same time as commedia’s mountebanks started getting on benches in front of St. Mark’s in Venice (a city linked by trade with the Levant and points east)? Could the transmission of these puppet characters with at least a tendency toward the reed—the “K’s”Karagoz, Kasperel, Kaperek, Kasper; the “P’s” Pulchinello, Pulchinelle, Pulchinella, Punch, Petruska, the “H-J’s”Hans, Hanswurst, Jan, John—mean that some or even all of these figures are somehow related? If so, what is the nature of that relationship?



Western theorists have tended toward a Eurocentric explanation. Older theatre history argued that theatre begins with Greece, goes to Rome, resurrects in the Renaissance, moves from Italy to France to England, etc. The diffusion of commedia style improvisational performances or similarities in dramatic traditions is usually explained as a movement from West to East. For example the similar features of Turkish improvised theatre to commedia are said to be a result of Jewish artists fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and seeking refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Some puppet historians (Pischel, Laufer) have been open to thinking that the puppet clown may be a migrant from the East, but there has only been modest speculation on connections. Perhaps it is too scary to see the potential link between Punch’s paddle and Siva’s phallus in the dwarf form of Siva found in Western India. Theatre history of course has been loathe to consider that the Greeks in their Dionysian dances did not start everything and refuse to consider that Siva was dancing before Dionysus was born. Puppeteers, however, noting that both the figures and voices of various traditions are related, sometimes have argued that all those tooth pullers with their swazzles who seem involved in early European puppetry may go back to the reedy voices associated with Indian puppetry. Where the strange twists of sound—swazzle or the deep throat rasp—actually originated, will never be proven conclusively. The most I will argue is that the principle of the voice of the puppet is better articulated in Asia and the fundamental ideas may have links to old traditions including Shamanism and tantric ideas that locate voices and energies in different parts of the body. This leads me to suggest the swazzle principle.

The Swazzle Principle
While we all enjoy the incredibly lifelike movement of a marionette in the hands of a master, in our heart of hearts we know that object theatre is not really about replication of reality. If you want a mirror held up to nature—the actor is the thing. Puppetry operates on a slightly different principle, which I will here call the “swazzle principle.” The voice of a puppet is not a normal human voice. If the puppet is smaller the voice will generally be higher and quicker, and if the figure is larger the voice will be slow down time and the pitch descend. Object theatre is chosen because the human dimensions are too limited—too mundane—to capture the greed, the passion, the beauty that is desired. As the form warps so does the voice. Swazzles and music help remove sound from the real, the everyday. As the movement of the puppet (even in Punch’s most frenetic murdering) is dance like—so the sound is musical, even if it is a squeakily off-key “That’s the way to go!” The sound enters the ear and zaps the brain in the same way that the image of a figure speeds along the optic nerve signaling difference.

With puppetry across Asia we find certain instruments that stand in for the human voice. These become associated with puppeteers and their music, and keep the puppeteer’s voice in tune for the character presented. These instruments include the reed, which may morph into a clarinet/oboe style instrument. It represents the (altered) human voice in many village ensembles, which can play effectively outdoors. That blast of air and the figures shrunk down into the world of kathaputli or blown up into the ten-foot puppet images of the Indonesian Betawi (ondel) accompanied by the serunai (reed instrument) can gather an audience any day. There is something about the reed for humans. Some have argued that the translation of the voice into reed is associated with shamanism. While this can not be proven, it is true that reeds are a quick and easy way to morph the human voice into the “othered” voice—and what would a spirit, dead or demon or divine, be but “other”? Today, there is no shamanism associated with the puppet reed, but the sound still provides a path into another dimension. It makes us prick up our ears, turn our bodies toward the sound and sends our eyes scanning for that figure that dances in the hands of the puppeteer. We hear the sound, and when we see the figure we know that it is a good fit. The comic, the demonic, the street walking puppetry fittingly twitches and jerks to reed-like sound.

The second instrument important in puppetry is flute. The breath that passes through this instrument is not Punch-like. The songs and sounds of the flute in puppet ensembles of Indonesia, for example, are often associated with the female singer (pasinden). Stately kings and princes move and dance to this sound. When they speak the flute is not necessarily playing, but the breath-filled resonance still models their voices. It is as if the performer’s voice uses full roundness and resonators found along the windpipe (the back of the mouth, the chest) to help play this voice. The use of the voice in flute-like ways works best for the slowing down and expansion of sound. Noble and stately figures or those that cause our minds to soar may chose this transformation of sound.

The third instrument is the string. If the telling of great tales often begins with a solo singer playing a monochord (Vietnam), a bowed lute (like the Malay-Indonesian rebab), a multi-stringed strummed lute (like the Japanese biwa and later the shamisen that accompanies bunraku), we often find that, over time, these purely narrative forms morph into a tradition that uses figures to illustrate the epics. The strings are useful in that, while the sound transforms the everyday into a supra-mundane experience, we can actually hear the words and fully appreciate the dialogue. Epics that care about both content and aesthetics will likely be associated with this instrument. The vocal quality and rhythm of the different character voices can be accommodated by this instrument’s wider range.

Each of these instruments is significant in some puppet performances. I argue that these instrument have become associated with puppet theatre because they participate in the Swazzle Principle. We recognize them as transformations of the voice as the sound moves from common dialogue toward music. The sound is “othered.” 

The puppeteer of course will use the sound that best fits the puppet and its action. The pinched sound of the reed speeds up and raises the pitch in a way that hurries up time and launches us into the rhythm of a world moving too fast. As anyone who is a performer knows, speeding up moves us into the domain of laughter and/or violence. The reed voice generally becomes associated with comic and demonic characters.
The flute is more expansive and the fullness of its sound suited to more serious, stately or divine characters. The stringed instrument—with its potential for multi-octave range, easy movement from loud to soft and high to low—creates a more versatile model for puppet vocalization, and hence is well suited to narratives that move between the extremes of the reed-like and the flute-like vocal modes.

The elements of the Swazzle Principle then, are that the puppet voice is sound distorted (faster-higher, or slower-lower), and that in many Asian (as well as in some Western traditions) that sound will become music (Basil Twist and Julie Taymor are doing operas for a reason). Finally, certain instruments—reed, flute, and strings—have become connected to puppetry and, in general, these instruments have a different aesthetic or inclination that is played out both in character and plot (reeds for comedy and violence, flutes for the more dance-like and transcendent action, and the versatile strings for wide-ranging actions or emotions).

Wayang Golek
Given the Swazzle Principle articulated above, I now turn to wayang golek purwa—a rod puppet genre of West Java, Indonesia, and a puppet tradition in which I perform. In my analysis, while I play many characters and multiple epics, the “voices” that I use for the wide range of characters are actually quite limited. There are four major voices governed by two notes—the one and four of the Sundanese slendro gamelan scale. The tessitura of the puppet voice is governed by these notes, though the octave may change. The voices correspond to the types: lenyapan/alus (refined male or female), lenyap (semi-refined male or female), pungawa (strong male), angkara-murka (emotionally uncontrolled and demonic). Each character uses a slightly different register, rhythm, or register. 

The lenyapan character’s voice hovers around the lower note of (4) on the gamelan scale. The character starts talking on a 4 (cued by the saron, a metalophone in the gamelan) moves a couple of notes up or down in the body of the speech and return to 4 at the end. The back of the mouth is rounded and used as the major resonator. The tuning phrase “masaman” with its delicious em vibration in the mouth and lips may start the speech. A slow even rhythm marks the measured wisdom of the character of the refined hero or his loyal wife. The differences of gender are merely whether the round sounds generated in the back of the mouth are focused down toward the chest resonator (male) or up toward the nasal resonator a degree (female). At the points when the dalang (puppeteer) speaks as narrator he basically uses this lenyapan voice but uses the chest resonator more distinctly.

The lenyap character starts and ends on the higher note (1) and the rhythm is fast and even staccato. The resonator is dental and the sound can even be a bit nasal. When my students first try it they often lapse into Alvin the chipmunk kinds of sound, but with effort smooth it out. The female character is often just a bit faster than the male and instead of returning to the polar note (1) at the end of a sentence it moves up a note on the scale.

The punggawa character is a strong male and the note is the same 4 as is used for the lenyapan, but the vocal cords are tightened creating a rasp as the sound is caught at the glottal stop. The downward press of breath makes it echo in the chest. The tuning sound to begin this character’s speech is “greurum,” a sound that approximates an animal’s deep growl.

The ankara-murka is a demonic character who begins on the 1 used by the lenyap character. The character’s voice moves widely over an octave as the speech is delivered. The top of the skull and the nasal bones are all activated as resonators on the higher notes, while chest resonance is used for the low tone.

With slight variations in rhythm—or some more comic distortions for clowns, demons and special figures—these four simple voices can be used to deliver the dialogue of a multitude of characters. None of these voices are “normal;” they are all musical and rhythmic distortions of the dalang’s voice. To find these voices representing the different types, the puppeteer plays different parts of the body. The larynx is his flute, the vocal folds are like a swallowed reed and the chest-throat-nose-skull are his resonators. By using the architectonics of his instrument—the human body—the dalang creates the multiple voices that are never like a real male or female and yet they give the illusion of being “right” for these varied figures from the svelte, long-armed prince to the bulbous-eyed, red-faced demon. Just as the puppet figure is abstracted from the real to give us greater purity of idea, and as the puppet’s movement morphs into dance, so the voice takes language and sound into the musical realm by manipulating tone and scale. 

Where do these voices come from? One could argue that the growling voice of the punggawa pops up in many performances of shamanic and mediumistic related forms. We find it, for example, in the sound of pansori, the Korean narrative tradition. We find it with the ching (painted face character) in Chinese opera, the aragoto (strong) samurai voice in kabuki. The high voice of the lenyap is related to the sound of the dan (female impersonator) in Chinese opera in both its human and puppet forms. The medium voice and its slower balance remind us of the chanting we hear in Chan, Son, Zen Buddhist forms and the sonorous chant of the shite the main character in Japanese noh. 

Does this mean these genres are related? This would be difficult to prove purely through an examination of historical transitions from place to place. Instead, let me end where I began—with the swazzle, which in these dance-mask-theatre forms been metaphorically “swallowed.” The swazzle itself is not there, but the idea of moving the voice from the everyday remains a potent principle. Stylized characters, masks, and puppets are related—they demand a voice that reflects their “otherness.” With the choice of a puppet, walking moves toward dance, sound rises toward music, and the voice of the puppeteer moves from its normal range toward something entirely theatrical. These sounds and voices, suppressed in our everyday lives, are there in our throats, chests, noses, and heads and are just waiting to break through.

Kathy Foley is a dalang and professor at UCSC. She is a former board member of UNIMA-USA, and is a frequent contributor to Puppetry International.