By: Zach Larimer
Aya Terki has always been the kind of person who refuses to conform. Growing up on Long Island she refused to hide her cultural identity, half Egyptian and half Japanese, to fit in with her predominantly white classmates. As a teenager she decided to go to school to study the cello despite the high value her family and culture put on finding a financially stable career. And now as an adult she is breaking from her traditional classical background to forge her own path as a contemporary cellist where she performs new music for her audiences.
Dressed on a March afternoon in a simple brown sweater and jeans, she lugs her heavy blue cello case on her back. Terki studies her worn Moleskine notebook, listing off the hours of rehearsals she has scheduled for the weekend to make sure she hasn’t double booked herself. She says exhaustion is part of her daily life but you wouldn’t know it from looking at her. Her bubbly personality shines through even while lamenting over her lack of any free time. It is clear that her work is more than just a job.
At just 21 years old Terki has already accomplished much in her career. The New York Times has praised her for her “poised” performances. She founded two contemporary chamber music groups, Echo Chamber and Quartet Do, and she regularly premieres works throughout New York. But with graduation from New York University just two months away, Terki is looking to plan a long-term career. She shares her love of contemporary music, how she balances a hectic schedule, and the struggles of making money as an artist.
Q: When did you start playing the cello and how did you make the switch to contemporary music?
A: I started when I was 6 years old. My mom wanted me to start when I was 5 at the Children’s Music Society out on Long Island but the director said I was too small to play it. I remember watching an episode of Sesame Street and Yo-Yo Ma was a guest star and I thought it looked cool. I started playing contemporary stuff my sophomore year at NYU when I was asked to be in the contemporary ensemble but before then I didn’t really like new music. Like most classical players I just thought “Ew what is this noise?” but I don’t think I was hearing cool new music at the time.
Q: A contemporary musician performs classical pieces written in the modern era utilizing a lot of different techniques and styles. With the cello that means you’ve had to learn new ways of playing that most classical cellists can’t do. What is it about contemporary music that appeals to you?
A: I like performing new music that hasn’t been played too often because you feel like you’re contributing to an interpretation. If you play something like Bach, that’s been performed hundreds of times it’s a bit frustrating because you can’t really contribute anything new to the piece. With contemporary music I can play it the way I feel it should be played and not worry if I’m right or wrong like you do with classical. I love performing stuff that’s rhythmic and groovy and being on stage and not feeling like I’m playing the cello. People hear the cello and they think “Oh it’s so pretty and nice,” but I want to show it can also be cool. I want it to be something cool!
Q: In a typical week you juggle school, working, rehearsals, and gigs. How do you balance it all and still stay so driven?
A: It has been lots of strict time management. I have my Moleskine planner that I keep my life in and I’d be lost without it. I don’t trust my phone and I always put things in pencil because things change a lot. Part of what drives me is being stubborn. I feel like I have to show everyone that I can do this and as cheesy as it sounds I don’t know what else I’d rather be doing.
Q: What is your ideal job scenario? Would you ever consider going back to strict classical music?
A: I’ve always thought about opening a little cafe that had live music and I’d bake cake pops or something. But hopefully I’d be playing and traveling. I used to think that I always wanted to be touring and never stay in one place. But now I think I’d like to travel while still spending enough days at home to have a life. I definitely wouldn’t do the orchestra thing. I know people who are on that audition route and love it but that lifestyle is just not for me. In a performance there is this journey you go on with a piece and you can really think about the music as a whole but for an audition it’s more about being able to nail a minute of music every time. I’d much rather play music that’s fun to prepare, fun to perform, and fun for an audience.
Q: You’re graduating this semester and most people in the arts are concerned about life after graduation. You have such a specific path that you’ve created but is it possible to have a plan in the music world?
A: My plan is always to have a couple of plans. I try to have control over the things that I can in life so I create the most opportunities but there’s a lot you have no control over. It’s terrifying to think that it’s really hard to make money off of your passion. If I can’t afford school or make money playing right away I want to be able to have a job for a little bit that’s related to the arts.
A: Don’t give up on the idea that you can make money off of your passion but also don’t starve or feel like you’ve failed because you haven’t “made it” yet. You don’t want to end up resenting your passion. It’s also reassuring to know that there are other people still trying to figure it out and everyone is trying to figure it out together. It’s ok. You’re not alone in being like “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing after school.” I don’t think anyone knows what they’re doing.