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Hollywood composer studying at UNL
Composer Joseph Curiale talks with the orchestra of the Nebraska Wesleyan Honor Festival on Feb. 12. (Erin Duerr) ERIN DUERR

Joseph Curiale wanted to dig — to take a shovel, turn some dirt and feel the strain on his lower back.

The first staff songwriter for Columbia Pictures, Curiale often found himself on airplanes between Los Angeles and New York City — and when he flew over the Midwest, he couldn’t help but stare at the land below.

For some unexplained reason, he felt drawn to it.

“I would see the circles and squares of the farms, and something really touched me,” he said. “Sometimes I would start crying on the plane, just thinking, ‘Wow, these people have fed me since I was a kid.’”

So when Curiale learned his friend NET Radio personality Lora Black owned some farmland in Southeast Nebraska, he asked for a small favor.

“He was so anxious to dig in the dirt,” Black said. “I promised if he came to Nebraska again, I would take him to some farmland and let him dig to his heart’s content.”

Curiale not only dug some dirt, he also visited several small towns in Nebraska — and called the experience “magical.”

“I know it might sound weird to the locals, but for me it meant something,” he said.

That was six years ago.

Today, Curiale is living in Nebraska. His affinity for the state and its people led him to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He will have his master’s from the School of Music in May.

He needs a graduate degree in order to teach in India, where he’s financially supporting four orphan girls he’s trying to adopt. He wants to bring them to the United States, but Indian law prevents a single man — even one with the best of intentions — from adopting children. Even if he was married, he and his wife’s age couldn’t total more than 90 years, he said. Curiale is 53.

“It doesn’t matter if I have five pages of amazing credits from Hollywood (which he does),” he said. “In some places it’ll be more advantageous to have a Ph.D. or higher degree like that … then I can raise my girls. That’s my goal."

But why Nebraska?

It’s a question the composer fields often.

“I know,” he said, “but I don’t know. All I know is the intuitive pull is there. I always go with my intuition and figure it out later.”

A gentle tug began in 1994, when Curiale — while recovering from a near-fatal case of dysentery contracted while he was in Singapore — saw an episode of “CBS Sunday Morning.”

“I like their art segments,” he said. “I also like the sound of that show.”

A segment called “Postcards from Nebraska” made him sit up and take notice.

“There was this guy who looked like he could be from a family farm, and, of course, it was Ted,” he said. As in Kooser, the state’s celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.

“I didn’t know who he was,” Curiale said. “He sat in a chair in his yard and read ‘So This is Nebraska.’ I just literally, as weak as I was, levitated out of bed and walked over to the piano and wrote what ended up becoming ‘Prairie Hymn.’”

The piece served as a catalyst for his composition “Awakening,” which the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recorded under his direction in 1997. He saved “Prairie Hymn” for his second release, 2001’s “The Music of Life,” which again features the Royal Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra.

“(Kooser’s poem) really set me on the road to writing this beautiful piece,” he said.

It was then his career began to shift, from the lucrative world of commercial music to concert music.  

“I never allow myself to get too comfortable,” he said. “When things are cruising along, I know it’s time to have another experience.”

Curiale, an Italian-American, grew up Connecticut and graduated in 1975 with a music education degree from the University of Bridgeport.

“I knew I didn’t want to teach at this point until I felt I really had something to say,” he said. “That I had lived my life and had something to say.”

And so he did. He first toured with the Glenn Miller Orchestra as a trumpet player. Then he moved to Japan and spent two years there before heading to Hollywood on a whim.

“That was the big dream machine,” he said. “That was where it all happened for me. … They were probably the happiest years of my life.”

His career in film, television and recording began with writing for “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson from 1982 until Carson’s final show in 1993. His song “Sick of the Blues” became the closing theme.

Soon after, Columbia Pictures hired him as its first staff songwriter. His six-year contract led to gold and platinum records for his work on the “Breakin’” soundtrack as well as “Ugly Betty” actress Vanessa Williams’ first recording.

His songs are in such films as Steve Martin’s “Roxanne,” Mark Harmon’s “Summer School” and Kevin Bacon’s “Quicksilver.” His television themes include the long-running Emmy Award-winning show “Nick News.” He earned an Emmy nomination in 1990 for his music direction on a Sammy Davis Jr. tribute.

In 2001, he was honored at a Hollywood Bowl concert, “A Celebration of TV Music,” which featured a performance of his “Gates of Gold Suite” in a segment honoring Hallmark Hall of Fame. He was musical director in 2004 for the sequel concert.

His compositions and arrangements have been recorded or performed by more than 100 artists, including Janet and Michael Jackson.

Curiale’s peers call his music accessible.

“I think it’s beautiful,” said Scott Anderson, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln trombone professor who’s developed a close friendship with Curiale. “I like it a great deal. I think, and I’ve felt this way for a long time, that film music is the classical music of the late 20th century. It’s where most of our talented composers are. It’s where the money is, but it’s also where you get the chance to have your music played.”

Curiale compares his compositions to Kooser’s poems.

“His poetry is very people-friendly,” he said. “It’s very much reflective of how I feel about music. It’s very unpretentious. As I’ve gotten to know him, I like it even more. He’s a straight shooter, a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. Everything about him resonates.”

Curiale’s work quickly became popular among public radio programmers, including Chris Kohtz, former music coordinator at NET Radio. In 1997, Kohtz invited Curiale to discuss his music on air in a telephone interview.

The composer did him one better, telling him he would fly out and do it in person. He wanted to see Nebraska first-hand, especially since the “CBS Sunday Morning” segment three years earlier sparked an interest in the state.

He returned in 2004 to appear on NET Radio, this time with Black. He connected with the host of “Classics by Request” when a friend from Wyoming told him about a woman in Scottsbluff requesting a Curiale piece. He contacted NET Radio to get the woman’s name so he could send her an autographed CD.

“I was so touched that somebody in the Heartland loved the music so much that they requested it,” he said. “It was Lora who played it. Since then, Lora and I have established a friendship. I told her I was coming to see her.”

And to dig dirt.

It’s not unusual for Curiale to be so spontaneous. There are numerous newspaper stories from around the world about his spontaneity, particularly about his out-of-left-field act of kindness in 2006.

Watching a report by CNN correspondent Satinder Bindra about the suicide rate among Indian farmers plagued by debt and drought, he was particularly moved by the story of a widow who didn’t have enough money to feed her son.

“I literally heard a voice like right about here,” he said, pointing to a spot behind his left ear. “It said, ‘Pay her debt.’ I said out loud, ‘What?’ It said, ‘Pay her debt.’ Again following my intuition, I just said, ‘OK.’”

He didn’t have the money. But his “music came to the rescue,” Curiale said. Days after the broadcast, he received a royalty check from Drum Corps International for some symphonic music he wrote. He used it to pay the woman’s debt.

Since then, Curiale has formed The Joseph Curiale Foundation to help Indian farm widows. He’s paid off the debts of five other women and helped another 25 more, he said.

“He’s a savvy person,” Anderson said. “When he sees a cause, he goes about pursuing it with his heart and soul. He generally wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s remarkable what the guy’s done, with a lot of it a great deal of expense to himself.”

Said Becky Van de Bogart, Third Chair Chamber Players artistic director: “I have no question that he’s very, very sincere about what he’s doing and what he’s going after. It’s coming from really deep inside of him.”

On one of his recent trips to India, Curiale visited an orphanage. It was there he became acquainted with two sets of sisters, ages 9 to 14. Again, the voice reached out to him, telling him he was destined to help them.

That’s why he’s in Nebraska. The Hollywood composer and humanitarian is now a graduate student. And loving it. He’s teaching two courses — The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll and World Music for Non-Majors — as he works on his thesis, a symphonic score.

He’s learned print-making, first taking classes at the Lux Center for the Arts before becoming  a student of Karen Kunc, an internationally known printmaker and UNL art professor.

He’s also been active on Lincoln’s music scene. He guest conducted the Lincoln Civic Orchestra last fall while music director Sam Zitek finished his doctorate degree. He attended a recent Third Chair concert, which featured one of his works. And in mid-February, Nebraska Wesleyan University brought him in as a guest conductor for its high school honors festival.

“I think we’re blessed to have him here,” said Lincoln Southeast High School instrumental music director R.J. Meteer.

Two years ago, Southeast’s marching band used Curiale’s music at the state competition. The composer was there to see the band receive top marks.

“It was a wonderful experience he provided my kids, sharing his music and sharing his insights as he was writing the music. He even went bowling with the kids, showing he was willing to go beyond the norm.”

Of course, Curiale isn’t your normal, everyday kind of guy. He likes to dig beneath the surface to discover who he is and where he’s going. And where he may be going next.

Reach Jeff Korbelik at 473-7213 or jkorbelik@journalstar.com.

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