Unheard Melodies and Uncharted Waters

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Founding faculty member Claudia Gorbman reflects on her 24 years at UW Tacoma, looks ahead to an active retirement.

Above: Gorbman teaching in 1997 and on the beach in 2014. Photo at right photo courtesy Claudia Gorbman.

Claudia Gorbman thinks back on her first year at UW Tacoma in 1990. “I remember asking Deb (Sunday), our librarian … at Christmastime, ‘So, how much has our library grown?’” Gorbman recalls. “She said, ‘Oh, it has grown. We have forty-eight books now.’”

“It was the Wild West,” Gorbman says. “We made mistakes and we had wonderful little triumphs. Our students were completely in on the pioneer spirit.”

Gorbman, who retired at the end of Autumn Quarter from UW Tacoma, has always had an exploratory streak. In her research and her teaching, Gorbman has always been one for crossing disciplines and wading in to unexplored territory. While at UW Tacoma, Gorbman helped fuel the university’s interdisciplinary spirit, helmed the Global Honors program, and pursued interdisciplinary projects, including her research on music in film, which earned her the UW Tacoma Distinguished Research Award in 2009.

Building a University from Scratch

Twenty-five years ago, as UW Tacoma was seeking faculty members, Gorbman was already a tenured professor of comparative literature at Indiana University. But she was drawn to the idea of returning to the Northwest and joining in on the experiment of building a university from the ground up. Her father, also an academic, called the idea “folly” and advised her to stay in her secure position.  But Gorbman gave it a shot.

“It’s a crazy and exciting prospect to be founding a new university,” she says. “How many people get to do that?”

Gorbman has plenty of plans for retirement, including travel, writing and adventuring.

The Perkins Building, an office building on 11th and A streets, had less than ideal spaces for teaching, with large square pillars that obstructed student views of the classroom. Nevertheless, Gorbman loved teaching UW Tacoma’s first students, most of whom were returning students in their 30s or older. “They were so hungry to learn and to get their degrees,” she remembers.

“By that spring, I was so connected to my colleagues and so committed to this brand new enterprise that I flouted my father’s advice” and stayed on at UW Tacoma for another 23 years, she says.

Unheard Melodies

Gorbman’s varied interests have fueled her unprecedented research. As a graduate student in Romance Languages and Literature at UW in the 1960s, Gorbman studied not only medieval literature, but film, when film studies was in its infancy in universities. At the same time, Gorbman has always been musical; she began playing the piano at age three. As folk music became popular in the 1960s, Gorbman turned her musical interests to guitar. “I was a little folkie,” Gorbman says. “I began listening to the music in movies as I was becoming a film fanatic.”


Her dissertation combined these passions, entering new territory as Gorbman became one of the first scholars to study music in film. As Gorbman was writing, the music in films was meant to set a mood, but not be actively listened to.

Gorbman’s resulting book, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music, remains a standard in the study of the ways music operates in movies to affect moviegoers. The title comes from the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” by John Keats: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter still.”

Interdisciplinary Instruction

Gorbman brought that interdisciplinary spirit to UW Tacoma, where she was involved in the development of many courses, particularly those that cross the boundaries of traditional disciplines. “In the real world there aren’t disciplines,” she argues, echoing the strongly held values of the original faculty.

Following its founding by Bill Richardson, Gorbman was the director of the Global Honors program and developed its original curriculum. It was an “enthralling cohort (of students),” she says. “They were highly motivated to learn about the world, its political, economic, and cultural interactions.” Gorbman is still in touch with some of those Global Honors pioneers who have become seasoned global citizens.

"I have a lot of plans for writing," says Gorbman, who is planing an updated edition of her 1987 book "Unheard Melodies."

In the end, she says, it’s less important to her that film students remember the styles of Hollywood studios or specific film theories than that they become more curious and thoughtful about films, creativity, and the world.

“Dr. Gorbman made a point to inform our class that it was the duty of all Americans to know and understand social and political realities,” says Ieesha Irving, Communications ’15. “She not only spoke about equality, she also took a proactive role in social justice.”

At a goodbye potluck, Gorbman’s students made a poster with a bittersweet quote from the musical Dancer in the Dark: “This isn’t the last song.” At the event, “Memories from 39 years of teaching flooded in on me,” Gorbman says. “(I thought about) how much of my life has depended on students…. I will miss them.”

“It’s very hard to convey the complexity of emotion,” she adds.

Exploring Retired Life

Gorbman has many goals for life after UW Tacoma – namely, more exploring. “I have a lot of plans for writing,” says Gorbman. “I don’t really feel like a ‘retired person.’ And so I know I’ll find new adventures, cultivate new skills, keep traveling.”

Since Gorbman wrote Unheard Melodies in 1987, music in film has changed a great deal – Quentin Tarantino’s striking use of pop music juxtaposed with violence would have been out of place, to say the least, in the 1960s. In retirement, Gorbman is working on an updated edition of her book, including sections on music and YouTube; songs in non-musical films, in which a character starts amateurishly impromptu singing; and the “mediated voice,” or voices heard through another medium, like over an intercom or on a radio station.

Gorbman also recently published an article in Film Quarterly on Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s use of his voice in The Master and hopes to continue translating French-speaking authors, bringing their works to English-speaking audiences.

Gorbman plans to keep discovering. “Bucket lists include South America, Eastern Europe and more of Asia … the world!” she says. She is also excited to spend time and travel with her partner, Pam, an artist, teacher, nurse, and “highly principled, amazing person who’s always saving the world,” Gorbman says. She continues to scratch her musical itch by playing folky instruments like guitar, banjo and mandolin with friends

It’s Not Goodbye

Despite having a full slate of retirement plans, Gorbman won’t forget UW Tacoma just yet.

“I’ll miss UW Tacoma a lot. It’s just a really unique place. It’s been through a lot of convulsions and crises, but there’s a ruggedness about people here,” she says.

As one of the people who watched UW Tacoma grow, Gorbman reflects on the university as she looks out her office window. “It makes me so proud to be here on this distinctively beautiful campus,” she says. “As new buildings open, you can see a vital urban university taking shape. That has been a thrilling aspect of being here.”

Read more about Claudia Gorbman in a recent article in the Culture, Arts and Communication newsletter

Section: 
Written by: 
Abby Rhinehart / January 30, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu