Jail Break

It took a stay in a Dutch prison to show John Petrik the path to ambient electronica

The other main component of the building is its studio, a small, soundproof corner room overflowing with keyboards, guitars, and computer equipment. "In the studio, it's easy to feel closed in," Petrik says, "so I like to project my speakers outside and walk around the Palace with my guitar for inspiration."

Petrik's guitar-based ambient music matches the serene confines of the Palace. In creating his solo debut, Jhana, which he self-released in September, he married subtly delivered lyrics with live sax, flute, bass, and guitars, all of which he recorded though his keyboards. The result is a dreamy collage of organic and processed parts, pitched halfway between New Age and ambient electronic music. In the next several months, Petrik hopes to adapt his solo sounds to his clubby, house-oriented live project Live -- ignoring the fact that clubgoers are oftentimes fickle to the six-string.

"One trance DJ told me he liked the album, but that he hates guitar," explains a relentlessly positive Petrik. "I could see how a buzzer on a washing machine or a doorbell could be annoying, but how could anyone just single out one instrument? So it was a challenge to overcome some of those obstacles live."

For Live shows, Petrik will be joined by a singer, a DJ, a keyboardist, and several MIDI players, all of whom will perform in a custom-built, UFO-like case. There will also be a series of microphones secretly placed throughout the audience for the purpose of sampling the crowd's vocals. "It's like what [French downtempo act] St. Germain could do if it could go two more steps. We're going to be able to affect all the musicians' outputs, having an engineer grab the sound right before it hits the listener's ear."

Petrik's goals are ambitious, but it's that energy -- along with his open-mindedness and messiahlike spirituality -- that draws so many people to him.

"[Petrik's] music makes you think of the moments when you're most alive, happy, and satisfied," says Angela Saval, 24, Live's co-writer, co-engineer, and vocalist. "It asks, "Have you reached that [place in your life]?' That question is the undertone of the music. It's confirmation for those who answer, "Yes,' and inspiration to those who answer, "No.'"

The same message seems to resonate with Petrik's audience. Following the release of Jhana, the postings to his Web site (www.middlemarz.com) approached a cultlike fervor. One person wrote, "John Petrik is the man. His generosity, vision, and talent are truly inspirational," while another added, "John Petrik could start his own religion."

Petrik approaches these postings from a sensible distance. "I don't think I know anything," he laughs. "Maybe it stems from the whole freedom thing, but once you say you know [everything], you've locked yourself in." And while Jhanafulfills the goals he established in jail and Live brings him exciting new ones, Petrik still believes that "some people attach themselves too much to their art. Even if you've made the ultimate chicken dish, you can always make it better."

As imprisonment taught him, he'd rather know true happiness within himself than be bound by want -- even if that means putting an end to his music. "There are South Americans who spend five years carving detailed objects out of wood, then they burn them to show that they're not slaves to their possessions. I would like to get to a point where I could do that."

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