Organists Are Just Normal People

Say Anything

His Nikes sit, discarded, beside the organ bench, his bag slumped in one of the empty pews of Appleton Chapel, the cozy inner sanctum of Memorial Church. Playing the organ, Danny Forger '99 is hidden behind a bank of silver pipes that range from the size of a pencil to a baseball bat.

Only Forger's face appears, reflected in the mirror above the 20-year-old church organ, as he plays. His fingers span the four organ keyboards and his nimble feet spring from one of the 33 organ pedals to the next.

He's deep in concentration--deep enough that you might mistake him for the young pianist David Helfgott from the movie "Shine"--but he's also smiling.

"Organists are just normal people," Forger says after a rendition of Charles Marie Widor's Symphony No. 6 in G Minor, a piece that explodes from the thousands of delicate pipes in a sweet medley of singular sound.

So organists are just normal people--with an unusual extracurricular interest for '90s Harvard. Forge notes many Harvard Faculty are organists--from Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Ethics, Rev. Peter J. Gomes to Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles--but it seems the instrument's allure has for the most part eluded Generation X.

"Widor said once that to play the organ you have to have a vision of the eternal. It has to become part of your life," says Forger, describing the music he plays--mostly centuries-old Baroque and French Romantic work--as both practice fare and casual listening.

"[They're] one and the same. They've got to be," he said. "I'm extremely passionate about the music."

President of the 15-member Organ Society at Harvard, Forger has been playing for about 10 years, expanding his range on organs everywhere from inner-city meeting houses to Johann Bach's home church in Germany.

Forger currently plays for North Prospect Church near Porter Square, but he says his formative experience as an organist occurred during high school while playing at Kings Highway United Methodist Church in Brooklyn.

"To them, music meant something," Forger said. "Here at Harvard most people are so successful, it's just a different environment from the inner-city. There, people really needed the music."

Forger (an applied math concentrator) says the Organ Society--composed entirely of non-music majors--has been grappling with "image problems" that have kept listeners at bay.

"When you say 'organist' people usually think of the Phantom of the Opera," Forger says, noting that while the recent Halloween concert of "Scary Organ Music" sponsored by the Organ Society was packed, the society's funds ran dry this year. Finding ways to attract audiences to the society's guest organ recitals while expanding his own range with skilled organists at the College has become Forger's primary extracurricular activity.

"One of the challenges we have is that we don't play the most popular music. But the music we do play is wonderful," says Forger, describing his personal passion for works from jazz organ to Gershwin and his predilection for the grandiose, "emotional" French Romantics.

"It's really just about what suits your personality," he explains.

More challenging than adapting 500-year-old music to a 20th century audience, however, is adapting a personality suited to lofty chapels and church choirs, (normal as it may be) to the Harvard social scene.

"When you first meet someone of the opposite sex, the first thing you say is not 'I'm an organ player," Forger chuckles. "They'll think you're a monk...or they'll misinterpret what you mean by 'organ."