Cellist Andrea Casarrubios is devoted to composing as well as performing

“Composing is the one thing I do in life that is 100 percent who I am,” cellist Andrea Casarrubios insists. “I love the feeling of an empty score, a blank book. I love imagining all the possibilities while discovering a new work."

Pablo Pazos

Pianist-composers in the history of music are well known. Think Franz Liszt, Clara Schumann and Sergei Rachmaninov. But other instrumentalists have doubled as composers, too, like Giovanni Bottesini, who was known as the “Paganini of the Double Bass.” The 19th-century virtuoso wrote an array of works for the instrument, some of which are performed today.

Although Andrea Casarrubios is best known worldwide as a cellist, she also has been interested in writing music since her childhood teacher of piano (her first instrument) introduced her to improvisation and composition. But it wasn’t until much later that the Spanish-born cellist began performing some of the works she had written, and it was only about 10 years ago that Casarrubios, now 34, began accepting commissions and writing for other musicians.

“Composing is the one thing I do in life that is 100 percent who I am,” said Casarrubios said via email. “I love the feeling of an empty score, a blank book. I know for some people this can feel daunting — and it is — but I love imagining all the possibilities while discovering a new work. I call it ‘discovering’ because that is how it feels in my case, I just have to listen closely.”

Casarrubios will appear as both a performer and musician Feb. 20 when she joins members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a CSO MusicNOW concert, the ensemble’s contemporary-music series. Curated by Mead Composer-in-Residence Jessie Montgomery, the series is marking its 25th anniversary this season.

In addition to works by Osvaldo Golijov and Betty Olivero, the program features two selections by Casarrubios — Speechless and the world premiere of Afilador, commissioned by MusicNOW. The former, which was written for cello, vibraphone, cymbal and marimba, received its debut at Carnegie Hall in 2016.

Written for Ensemble Connect, of which the cellist is a former member, “Speechless was born out of questioning what it means to have a voice,” the composer observed in a program note for the piece. “How do we use it and when? Are we understood when we speak? And what about when we don’t speak? In this work, the performers embark on a playful, yet desperate — and sometimes contradictory — search. At its core, it is an experience based on a non-verbal discussion between the inner voices of one’s self. The music travels through ideas, impulses, memories, and it never visits the same place twice.”

Casarrubios called Speechless and the journey on which it takes players and audiences one of the most unorthodox works she has ever written. “My intention when I wrote the ending,” she said, “was to let us all take a few moments of pause so that we are left, literally, speechless — with nothing to explain or clarify, just being with our purest essence and acceptance.”

“Being a cellist seemed like a much more straightforward option than composition, and I didn’t know you could do both.” — Andrea Casarrubios

Afilador, scored for clarinet, violin, viola and cello, was inspired by one of Casarrubios’ cherished memories from her childhood in a Spanish village in the Tiétar Valley at the base of the Sierra de Gredos mountain range. She would regularly hear the sound of the afilador, a whistle or flute played by itinerant knife sharpeners to signal their presence to potential customers. Although the peddlers have largely disappeared nowadays, she again heard the sound of an afilador during a visit to her hometown a few years ago, and she was transported back to her youth.

“In this quartet, the music begins with a breath of fresh air, seeking to float above everything earthbound, gathering perspective from a bird’s eye,” she said in her program note. “The clarinet then starts imitating the distant melismas of a sharpener’s whistle. The afilador as a musical idea is intended to appear as a call to come back to presence, to snap out of our mental noise, and from there, perhaps, to be ushered immediately into memory and meaning. After the first iteration of the afilador theme, the music becomes almost like a mantra played by the strings, drifting through an intense ice storm where all the elements eventually align. The ending returns to the abundant color of the valley and represents a transformation; turning tragedy and hardship into as much beauty and warmth as possible.”

After her youthful forays into improvisation, Casarrubios used composition as way to better understand the works she was playing as a cellist. But she didn’t think of composition as a possible career, and it certainly didn’t occur to her that she could do both professionally. “Being a cellist seemed like a much more straightforward option than composition, and I didn’t know you could do both. There were some top international cello figures I admired, and some of them were strong women I looked up to, and it seemed like the path was more or less clear if I worked really hard.”

Furthermore, she wasn’t exposed to the music of women, and it didn’t occur to her to question why all the composers she studied were men. “Now, looking back, I can see why throughout my studies it was not a career I even considered,” she said. “In fact, composing is something I did in private.”

Only later, after she had an established performing career did she begin to introduce some of her works for solo cello or piano into her recital programs. These works were well received, and other musicians began asking her to write for them. As might be expected, most of her works involve cello in way or another, and the majority are for smaller forces. But she has increasingly taken on large-scale pieces like MIRAGE, a concerto for cello and orchestra, which she debuted with the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid in 2019. The Indianapolis Symphony later presented its U.S. premiere with cellist Thomas Mesa as soloist. She is currently working on a piano quartet, scheduled for its premiere in November at Chamber Music Monterey Bay, and a string orchestra work for the Sphinx Virtuosi’s 2023-24 tour.

Like other performers who also compose, Casarrubios is constantly working to balance the two sides of her artistry. Performing used to take 80 percent of her time, but she is more and more devoted to composition; it has grown to occupy 60 percent of her focus. “It has been challenging, without a doubt,” she said. “But both activities complement each other for me. For others it might be different, but I play better because I have the experience of going through a creative process, and I write better because I know what it feels like being onstage.”