New York — ``He invented, almost out of whole cloth, what it means to be American,'' declares composer Ned Rorem about fellow composer Aaron Copland. This statement comes near the end of a fascinating hour-long documentary entitled Aaron Copland: A Self Portrait (PBS, Oct. 16, 8-9 p.m., check local listings). Mr. Copland will be 85 on Nov. 14. This self-portrait by the composer of ``A Lincoln Portrait,'' ``Billy the Kid,'' ``Rodeo,'' and ``Appalachian Spring'' (among so many works) gives us a glimpse of a beloved composer who broke new ground in the history of American music. Before Copland there were no recognizably American voices in serious music.
And though his American phase did not begin until Agnes de Mille asked him to write the score to her ``Billy the Kid'' ballet, all of his music has had a uniquely Copland sound.
We get to see Copland conducting, teaching, and narrating his own ``Lincoln Portrait.'' We hear some of his movie music (``The Heiress'' and ``Of Mice and Men''), we see him conducting his own ``Connotations'' (though it is not specifically identified in the film), and choral excerpts from his ``Tender Land.'' Of particular interest is the ``Billy the Kid'' sequence, with rare footage of Agnes de Mille dancing in her own ballet.
As a teacher and guide he has been revered by several generations of composers, including Lukas Foss, David Diamond, Leonard Bernstein, and Mr. Rorem. They all make it clear on this program that Copland always encouraged, even insisted, that young composers find their own voices and stick to them. What emerges from this hour is the warmth of the man, the integrity, the strength of his musical convictions.