Interview with Mike Pinto

by Kelsi Nicholson

Michael Pinto is a gifted and accomplished vibraphonist and electric musician whose style of vibraphone playing and passion for science-fiction makes him unique amongst his peers. Thanks to the late Milt Jackson, another vibraphonist, he was inspired enough to turn a superficial interest in jazz into a calling. He would go on to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston and hone his skills as a composer, arranger, and bandleader.

Pinto has worked alongside jazz musicians like Greg Osby, Logan Richardson, Billy Hart, and many more. He led a band called “Little Green Men” in 2010 and composed his own music in his self-titled debut album called Prologue in 2008, a musical short story that will be continued on his second album. He also developed, programmed, and composed the soundtrack for two video games in 2014 and 2018/2019. Here are the questions I asked him and what he had to say.

1. Me: Your love for science fiction is very apparent. You performed a jazz remix of
the Terminator theme, there are plenty of Star Trek references in your debut album, and you developed two video games in the sci-fi genre (which is the coolest as a huge fan of video games myself). And I’m wondering if that is why your instrument of choice is the vibraphone. I did some research on common sound effects and musical choices in sci-fi cinema, television, and video games. And I think the instruments used, the waterphone, the theremin, and an interesting one called the “Blaster Beam” (invented by Craig Huxley, who played Kirk’s nephew in the original Star Trek series), all have similarities to the vibraphone in the vibrato effect and how a mallet is used for the blaster beam. Is that why you gravitated towards the vibraphone? Or is it because Milt Jackson, one of your inspirations, was a vibraphonist as well?

Mike Pinto: In early high school I had a cursory interest in Jazz Band and through that I ended up getting a bebop compilation CD that had a few tracks featuring Milt Jackson. Something immediately clicked when I heard Milt play. The percussive nature of the instrument combined with the ethereal voice-like sound that the vibes produce really spoke to me.

2. Me: While listening to the video game soundtracks you composed for your
games, Hyperspace Delivery Service and Bik – A Space Adventure, I felt as though they went less for a “jazzy” sound and more atmospheric. As a fan of the Sonic The Hedgehog franchise, I am familiar with Jun Senoue’s work. He is a rock musician who has composed songs for the 16-bit era of Sonic games and as soon as the games left that era, he went full throttle with rock music and hasn’t stopped since. Why, as a jazz musician, did you go for the chiptune style of music? Is it because the rest of the games have the 8-bit aesthetic, and it fit the most, maybe you grew up with those NES an/or Master System games and it’s what you’re most comfortable and familiar with when it comes to video game soundtracks, or perhaps jazz music doesn’t translate very well into chiptune music?

Mike Pinto: The style of music in my video games is actually more of an accurate depiction of my authentic musical self than my “jazz” music. I grew up on video games in the late 80’s and 90’s and the type of music that was in games of that day was all a variation on chip tune style. To me, that type of music is a part of my core identity and so expressing it feels truly authentic. I have always experimented with electronic music but during the time right before I made my first game, I was beginning to get more serious about it and decided to make an album for an imagined game. Due to my programming knowledge, I ended up making a simple demo of the game along with some music. At that point I was so inspired that I decided to make the entire game and album. And then another.

3. Me: This question is based on my very limited knowledge of how the vibraphone is played. Wikipedia writes about two different techniques of vibraphone playing. Two- mallet style and Four-mallet style. However, in many of the live performances I’ve seen on your website and YouTube channel, you’re using what I guess I’ll call the “three- mallet style.” Two mallets in your left hand and one mallet in the right hand. Is there a reason for this?

Mike Pinto: I originally started learning vibraphone using a 2-mallet style. Then I learned the 4-mallet style. I could never seem to express myself in a way that felt like my voice with 4 mallets, but I did really appreciate the ability of playing 4 note chords. Through experimentation I was eventually able to find a technique where I could play the 2-mallet style but keep a third mallet in my left hand without affecting the technique in a drastic way. It wasn’t 4 notes, but 3 was close enough for me!

4. Me: Your debut album, Prologue, is a trying to tell a story that you have said “is about an alien scientist who is sent into space to save the world, but instead his attempts accelerate a cataclysmic event.” Which sounds awesome. But what I find interesting is that you developed two video games and neither of them told this specific story. I know it’s been said you plan on continuing the story in your second album, but I want to know what you think about the way different mediums tell stories. Super Game Droid‘s review for your 2014 video game, Bik – A Space Adventure, said “the dialogue is just superb in Bik…” With that being said, I think you’re more than capable of telling a great story in the video game format. Do you think music does it better? Which could make sense as jazz music is a very expressive genre, which was influenced by blues, another expressive genre.

Mike Pinto: I think that video games can express much more literal stories. With dialogue and visual art there is much less room for interpretation by the consumer. With music, the stories tend to be more purely emotional and interpretive. So while I may write music that tells a story, a listener is very much open to re-interpret and imagine their own story. It becomes more of a purely emotional story. With the game, the player can’t quite re-interpret it and has to take it as it is given to them. That’s not to say that exceptions exist in both styles. In both instances, for me at least, the goal is to stimulate and express an emotional reaction. Sometimes getting there requires the more literal design of a game, and sometimes it just needs to be more open and purely musical. I don’t think art should be limited to styles, genres, or artistic methods. As long as the artist has the ability, they should express in a language that allows that emotional intent to flow out of them and into the universe.

5. Me: Going back to our first interaction, I told you I was surprised that you were a vibraphonist. I assumed you played a saxophone, and it took me a little while to remember that some of my favorite jazz-influenced video game compositions use a vibraphone. I looked up “most common jazz instruments” and between the three different websites I looked at, only one mentioned the vibraphone. They mostly mentioned the trumpet, saxophone, piano, trombone, clarinet, bass, and guitar. In the beginning of this course, Professor De Lucia did an exercise where he wrote the word “jazz” on the board and asked us what it makes us think of. A lot of students mentioned instruments like the saxophone and trumpet. As a vibraphonist, what do you think about this? You can be honest with me and say that I just don’t know enough about jazz. Considering how the vibraphone’s Wikipedia page says it is “commonly used in jazz music, in which it often plays a featured role…” and its history goes as far back as 1927.

Mike Pinto: I think it is unfortunate how the term Jazz has been co-opted to mean a very narrow subset of historical musical style. The style of Jazz that most people think of when they hear the word is just a tiny fraction of the types of expression that the term truly means. I actually prefer “improvisational music” as it does not have any implicit assumptions on what style of music it is. However, I don’t solely play improvisational music so that doesn’t even always work. I usually end up saying I play and compose modern improvisational and electronic music. I don’t play bebop. I don’t play post-bop. I don’t play swing. I don’t play cool jazz. I don’t play blues. etc. It’s possible you could say all of those fall under the “jazz” umbrella. But in a way, all music is jazz. Jazz to me is a modern expression of contemporary music using improvisation as a platform. Contemporary music is music of the time. Not style. Not genre. Just a reflection of the present. Jazz is not a regurgitation of the past. Genres and Terminology are important for communication but sometimes it can put us into a box and limit evolution.

Works Cited

“Michael Pinto.” Inner Circle Music, Accessed 2 Apr. 2022