World troubadour Stephen Holland sings in four different languages. - Photo courtesy of Stephen Holland

A modern troubadour

Rhythms and harmonies of early world music are what inform the songs Northern California guitarist Stephen Holland. He's traveled extensively throughout Latin America and Europe, collecting songs by anonymous French troubadours, early European and Brazilian classical composers and Indonesian gamelan ensembles.

"A teacher once told me that I knew too much music," Holland says. "He said I needed to specialize in a single genre. But that's not for me. I play what I want to play ... and I don't take requests."

Holland will present a solo show at 7 p.m. Sunday, July 31, at the Unitarian Center, 87 Fourth St., Ashland.

He began playing guitar when he was 10. After studying with various instructors at the University of California in Santa Cruz and Los Angeles, he eventually took a bachelor's in comparative music, "a kind of an ethnomusicology degree," he says, from San Francisco State University. Later, he earned a master's in performance from Sacramento State.

It was in '86 and '87 that he traveled through Brazil.

"I was looking for classical music from the turn of the century through the '30s, and I was interested in baião, the folk style of northeastern Brazil," he says. "Brazilian composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos and Waldemar Henrique were influenced by Brazilian folk music and elements from European classical music."

Holland says he'll also perform a milonga and a zamba from Argentina, a Venezuelan waltz by Antonio Lauro and original pieces inspired by Bach and Spanish guitarist Francesc Tarrega.

"Everyone who's studied the guitar has been influenced by Tarrega," Holland says. "His pieces are signature war horses in the classical guitar literature."

Holland finds his inspiration for original work while playing such classics, he says.

"A simple movement will strike my ear and move me to write something new, and my own pieces reflect a lot of the classical guitar tradition."

He also has a penchant for the music of 12th-century Occitanian troubadours whose songs held themes of courtly love and concepts for which there are no modern counterparts in modern French.

"The troubadours were the first songwriters in the West writing love songs," Holland says. "I found some old songs from that era, and they are lovely. The old French dialect is a bear to pronounce, but the songs are worth it."

Holland says he doesn't play the ancient songs from a purist's viewpoint.

"Just because they're beautiful and old doesn't mean that we can't reinterpret them," he says. "I'm not averse to someone like Sting recording John Dowland songs. I believe that if these composers were still alive, they'd be playing modern instruments, and half of them would be electric."

Holland will perform using a handmade classical guitar, built by luthier Michael Thames of New Mexico.

"It's got a clear, clean voice," Holland says. "It's very even from bass to treble, and it's loud.

Holland sings in Spanish, Portuguese, French and English.

Admission to show at the Unitarian Center is $15 at the door. Call 541-482-4755.

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