Fort Collins composer creates new spin on national anthem

Maddie Wright

It’s not the Fourth of July unless “The Star-Spangled Banner” is bumping. But that doesn’t mean the original composition by Francis Scott Key is the best. Which is why a young Fort Collins composer took the chance to make his own arrangement of the American musical staple.

Ethan Boxley smiling
Ethan Boxley is a 22-year-old Fort Collins composer and music transcriber who has won multiple competitions with his musical arrangements and performances. (Photo courtesy of Mary Kopco)

Ethan Boxley‘s “Fanfare for the National Anthem” and “National Anthem in G” was performed by the Fort Collins Symphony Orchestra at their July 4 and July 7 concerts.

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“In writing the national anthem version, my goal was to really think about the meaning and emotional progression of the words and make those manifest in the chord choices, the instrumentation and the dynamics of the arrangement so that it would sound as patriotic and glorious as possible,” said Boxley.

Boxley is from Fort Collins and recently graduated from the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University with a Bachelor of Music in Composition.

At only 22, Boxley is well accomplished in the music composition world. He has had works performed by Spektral Quartet, Fort Collins Symphony, Northwestern’s Renaissance singers, Denver’s Playground Ensemble and the NoCo Artists.

He has won a number of composition competitions with his vast portfolio including for his piano quintet, Wayfarer, which won the Colorado Music Teachers National Association Junior Division and placed second in the region. His wind quartet, Character Suite, won the Colorado MTNA Junior Division and took third place in the National MTNA Junior Division. His piece “Fanfare for Home” won the Fort Collins Symphony’s statewide Young Composer’s Fanfare Competition.

“In writing the national anthem version, my goal was to really think about the meaning and emotional progression of the words and make those manifest in the chord choices, the instrumentation, the dynamics of the arrangement so that it would sound as patriotic and glorious as possible,” – Ethan Boxley

Wes Kenney, the Fort Collins Symphony director, approached Boxley who served as the 2017 music composition intern to transpose the anthem into the key of G major, an easier octave range for singers to perform in. 

“Knowing he’s a composer, I said ‘how would you like to try a crack at this and create a new version of the national anthem?’ and so he did,” Kenney said. “He wrote something actually far more substantial than I was expecting. That’s really how the piece was written and then we were actually able to premiere it just a couple of weeks ago.”

This challenge from Kenney resulted in Boxley’s composition, “Fanfare for the National Anthem” that premiered on the Fourth of July. According to Kenney, a fanfare is basically a concert opener, a declamatory type of piece that gets people’s attention.

Boxley’s interest in music stemmed from his childhood, and he started transcribing music when he was about ten years old.

“It was mostly (little) minuets, themes from film scores, and short one-line ideas for things,” Boxley said. “I started transcribing a bit more freshman year of college in order to try to learn styles from the 19th century that I was unfamiliar with, and get past just quoting stylistic cliches.”

Maestro Wes Kenney conducting on the Fourth of July. | Photo courtesy: Mary Kopco

The connection to the music and the composers that comes with transcribing is what continuously pulls Boxley to it. He is not just a transcriber, but a composer as well. And the drive and passion for composing are different than that of transcribing.

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“With composing, I guess (my favorite part is) the times when you’ve composed a little and you’ve done enough to see your musical plans coming together,” Boxley said. “And when you listen to a piece you composed and revised and know that you’ve done all you can, so the feeling and message that you had in mind when you were writing will be communicated to the listeners.”

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges that come with both transcribing and composing. Boxley says the hardest part is sometimes staying motivated and sticking to the end.

“I mean doing it consistently, and following through when you realize that completing a particular section or melody the way you really want would carry a difficult challenge,” Boxley said. “There are many, many things to do that are more fun, and there are some times when the piece seems not good enough to merit finishing. A lesser challenge is just accepting what you write, and not letting the little pinpricks of ‘it sounds like X’ and ‘Y wouldn’t approve’ get in and pick it apart.”

Collegian reporter Maddie Wright can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @maddierwright.