Organ System Brings
Symphonic Sound to Church

The State Journal

May 27-June 2, 2006

HURRICANE- At Forrest Burdette Memorial United Methodist Church, drums rumble, trumpets blare and bells clang - all at the fingertips of a single musician.

"The organ was designed not only for the church, but for the entire community," said Allen Harrah, the Charleston native who designed and constructed the giant draw-knob organ that creates the encompassing sound.

The Harrah Symphonic Organ at Forrest Burdette Church in Hurricane has more than 2,600 pipes and carries more than 20,000 digital notes. Some of its sounds are explosive; others amount to little more than a whisper.
The Harrah Symphonic Organ is heard not only on Sunday mornings, but also during special events, such as the PipeSounds Concert Series, which features artists from around the United States.

"We wouldn't be doing a movie soundtrack during a church service," said Don Gatewood, a pastoral assistant at Forrest Burdette. "That's why this is something for the whole community."

Harrah lightly touched the keys to produce violins bowing a single, gentle note.

"It can play the super soft stuff," he said. The keys are touch-sensitive - the farther they sink, the louder the sound.

"Then it has things that can blow you right out of the building," he continued, calling up an army of drums and summoning thunderclaps, which arise from a swell box holding hidden pipes.

When Harrah built the system, he had to constrain the sound so it would stop shaking the stained-glass windows.

"You can do just about anything you want," he said.

The organ has six decks of keys and more than 450 knobs to create the sounds.
Harrah's organ has 456 draw knobs, which line the console's walls. It is the largest draw-knob console in the world.

Its more than 2,600 pipes-some 10 feet long and others no bigger than a pencil - that carry more than 20,000 digital notes. Most of the pipes are metallic, but a few are wooden to capture a "different character of sound," Harrah said.

"It has the power of a symphony plus all the bells and whistles you find with a symphony," he said. "This has many more options than other organs. If a painter has 100 colors instead of just 10 colors on his pallet, it makes quite a bit of difference."

Digital recordings allow sound authenticity, Harrah explained. Internal computers permit programmed combinations and arrangements. The organ uses 10,400 watts of audio power and produces eight vibrations per second.

The main console can connect to separate keyboards to create more sound possibilities, including snare drums. The smaller keyboards usually are capable of playing only one level at a time, but when wired to Harrah's organ, all 13 levels can play at once.

The instrument is one of only a few six-manual and pedal organs in the country, Harrah said. It has six keyboards. The keyboards are stacked, with the most-used set closer to the player at the bottom and the least-used farther away at the top. Each keyboard is assigned a different section of knobs.

Forrest Burdette, which sees between 600 and 700 people each Sunday, was "the only place in the area remotely large enough" for the organ, Harrah said, and the church's United Methodist Women group raised more than $200,000 to pay for it. Harrah donated the rest, and the total cost was about $1 million.

"Since I live in the area, there was no better place," Harrah said.

Harrah has been fascinated with organs since he was 13 years old, when he claimed a discarded organ and began practicing. He graduated from Stonewall Jackson High School in 1952 and went to the University of Alaska to study electrical engineering and then accounting. He went on to spend most of his adult life in the music business, from sales to company ownership.

In 1972, he built the first commercially successful combination organ and, a few years later, founded the Harrah/Van Zoeren Pipe Organ Company. Harrah then became president of Rodgers Organ Company in Oregon. Harrah/Van Zoeren was incorporated into Rodgers. Later, he worked with Second Baptist Church of Houston to build what was then one of the largest pipe organs constructed on one stage.

Harrah left Rodgers in 1986 and returned to Charleston more than 10 years ago.

Harrah, 70, designed the entire organ system at Forrest Burdette, and much of it is hand built. It includes wind-making equipment for the pipes, air pressure regulation, 64 computers and 148 speaker systems.

Construction required three years and a few volunteers. In 2003, the project was complete.

"It was well-received in the church," Gatewood said. "Some people like organ music, and some don't. But this is more than just organ music."

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