Big idea

Charleston native donates time, money, expertise to bring $1 million instrument

Hybrid organ
Photo: Chris Dorst
Hybrid organs use pipes, computers and speakers to produce a vast assortment of sounds. Want some thunder? This organ can do it.

By Bob Schwarz
September 21, 2003

HURRICANEAllen Harrah wanted to do something big after he retired.

During his working years, he had designed and built organs — often called the king of instruments — and now he wanted to design and build one for his church.

As a boy growing up on Charleston’s West Side, Harrah had learned to play the organ, but not especially well. “I never paid much attention to my teacher,” he recalled recently. “I was always more interested in what made it tick than in how to play it.”

Harrah has built an organ of huge musical capability at Forrest Burdette Memorial United Methodist Church, the Hurricane church he attends. Were this instrument made entirely in the old technology, there would be 22,000 pipes, which would fill the entire sanctuary, leaving no room for pews or the people the organ makes music for.

“It would be massive,” he said. “In relation to church organs, it would be one of the largest in the world.”

The organ at Forrest Burdette, however, is a hybrid, part pipe organ and part digital organ. There are 2,588 pipes, all small. The remaining sounds are digital reproductions of sounds made by various pipe organs all over the world. Some of the sounds come from pipes that went out of production in the 1940s or even earlier.

“There’s no literal part here,” said Robert Walker, as he tinkered with the completed instrument a few weeks ago. “It’s a computer sending numerical messages to computers that produce the sound.”

Walker, of Walker Technical Co., Zionsville, Pa., voices organs. In technical lingo, he provides the tonal finishing to digitally reproduced voices. (Electronic organs have been around since the 1930s. But even the best ones made a sound that connoisseurs considered thin and overly electronic. Digital organs have taken that thin sound and made it rich and complex again, in this case with the help of 68 computers communicating with each other and 148 speaker systems scattered about the hall.

Harrah, 69, graduated from Stonewall Jackson High School in 1952 and went to the University of Alaska, where he studied electrical engineering for a year before switching to business and earning a degree in accounting.

Six weeks after graduation, the Army drafted him. He served two years, then co-owned a musical instrument retail store in Alaska. Then he came back to Charleston, setting up a small business selling Rodgers organs and rebuilding pipe organs.

In the early 1970s, working for a large retail music chain in Atlanta, he developed the prototype for what became the first successful hybrid organ. He went to work for Rodgers Organ Co. in Hillsboro, Ore., rising to president.

He left Rodgers in 1986, worked in Atlanta and New Hampshire, then returned to Charleston in the early 1990s to help care for his parents, Leon and Rita Harrah, who have since died. Now he lives outside Hurricane in a big house with a large basement workshop. “I have a three-car garage full of organ stuff. My car sits outside.”

Until digital technology came along, the pipe organ had not changed dramatically since the 1700s, except that then an organist wanting to practice had to round up a couple of assistants to keep the wind reservoir pumped up. Electricity eliminated the assistants, and now centrifugal fans pump air into the reservoirs.

Forrest Burdette’s United Methodist Women raised more than $200,000 to pay for the Forrest Burdette organ and the sanctuary renovations to accommodate it. Harrah has given a major cash gift and several years of his time to a project that he said would run close to $1 million were it not for a lot of donated labor and expertise. “Basically, I’m supposed to be retired, but every once in a while I get interested in a project.”

Organist Richard Morris, artist-in-residence at Spivey Hall in Atlanta, will perform the dedication concert at 3 p.m. Sept. 28. Admission is free.

At 3 p.m. Nov. 9, Fred Swann, the national president of the American Guild of Organists, will give a concert. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for senior citizens and $5 for children. That will be the first of several programs done in cooperation with Museum in the Community. “We have plans to do a silent movie accompanied on the organ,” Harrah said. “It’ll take people back to the old days when the movies were all silent, and everything was accompanied by the organ.”

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