In Memoriam: John A. Sonquist, 1931-2017

A well-known musician and arranger, John Sonquist was committed to peace, social justice, and human and civil rights.
Courtesy Photo

Chances are that if you went to hear classical music in the last 50 years in Santa Barbara, you would have either run into John A. Sonquist or heard him play. His enthusiasm for creating venues for people to share chamber music was insatiable. He could arrange music for any configuration of instruments and voice. His astonishing collection of music and his unique arrangements (30 boxes!) were donated to the Santa Barbara Music Society to form the core of a lending library for young musicians.

John was born in Elmhurst, Illinois, to J. Albert and Clare Sonquist. He started playing piano at age 4 and was a local child virtuoso. His father died when John was a child, and his mother went to work as a riveter, leaving John responsible for taking care of his little sister. His uncle, Dave Sonquist, a visionary in the co-op movement and a musician, took John under his wing, encouraging him to study piano and prepare for college. Uncle Dave was the director of Circle Pines Center, a recreational co-op in rural Michigan. The summer he was 16, John went to Circle Pines, and his life changed forever when he met Hanne Deutsch — who would become his wife of nearly 60 years.

Both John and Hanne went to the University of Chicago, studying the Great Books curriculum. Living in married student housing, they put themselves through school calling square dances. John was a conscientious objector. His alternative service was from July 1953 to May 1955, serving as a recreation coordinator at Manteno State Hospital. John went on to earn his PhD from University of Chicago, becoming a pioneer in computer applications in social science in the 1950s.

After directing Computer Services of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in the ’60s, mid-career, John felt his calling was academia, and he joined the sociology department at UCSB in 1970 as an associate professor. He designed a unique array of courses dealing with computer use and social impact, dubbed “Sonquist Tech,” which covered themes ranging from introductory concepts to computer simulations and artificial intelligence. His key work in multivariate analysis is still used today.

An avid musician, John played chamber music actively through his life. After his retirement in 1991, he organized and played in festivals, coordinated the noon concert series at the library, and served on the board of the Piano Club of Santa Barbara and statewide chamber music societies. He could be found every season enjoying the Music Academy of the West master classes and concerts by Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra and Camerata Pacifica, and at UCSB Arts & Lectures. He also performed and recorded with musicians in Santa Barbara.

John’s curiosity and scholarship combined with his talent and passion were shared with musicians around the state. On his 60th birthday, Hanne rented Hahn Hall, and all of his musical friends performed concerto grossi. John reciprocated with one of the Mozart piano concerti. For his 70th birthday, a large array of professional and amateur musicians played a concert in his honor at a large local church.

John’s taste in music was wide ranging and included classical, baroque, jazz, folk, international — you name it. His humorous rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” shared with a wide variety of people either at the Sonquist annual holiday open house or, if you were lucky, just because, inspired many young pianists to try to imitate it with their own version laced with the styles of Brubeck and Rachmaninoff, among others. In the last six-plus years, he organized concerts and the Vocalizers, a singing group at Valle Verde — where he lived and had many dear friends — and accompanied several soloists and duos.

John and Hanne fostered community wherever they were — UCSB, Starr King Parent-Child Workshop (where Hanne was the director for more than 25 years), the Quaker and progressive communities, and music circles. Their three children, Eric, Catherine, and Kristin, grew up surrounded by folk music, political action, art and literature, and community. As a family, they went to Washington, D.C., and New York to march for civil rights and peace. Together, John and Hanne devoted much of their lives to supporting peace, social justice, and human and civil rights.

John felt a strong commitment to serving the progressive community. Many Santa Barbara events could take place because John provided the PA system or technical support. His penchant for “having the right tool for the job” made his contribution behind the scenes irreplaceable. (His children remember that when each bought their first car, he spent hours teaching them how to tune it themselves, including providing the toolkit necessary to do so!) He studied nonprofit governance with the same thoroughness and curiosity that he studied everything — in order to contribute at the highest level. John served as a boardmember of the local chapter of the ACLU for over two decades.

In more recent years, John served as a pianist and music director for Live Oak Unitarian Congregation and became a dedicated member, developing a special community of friends, especially after Hanne died in 2009.

John Sonquist leaves a legacy of integrity, curiosity, dedication, joy of music, and bear-hugs with his son Eric Sonquist (wife Anita, children Jessica Sonquist and Zoe King, and Zoe’s husband Bryan and baby Grayson); and his daughters Catherine Sonquist Forest (husband Will and children Kelsey and Owen Forest) and Kristin Firrell (husband Graham and child Scarlett Peterson and her husband, Preston); and a tightly knit extended family.

A service celebrating John’s life will be held Saturday, November 4, at 2 p.m., at Live Oak Unitarian Church (820 N. Fairview Ave., Goleta), where he was a longstanding member of the congregation. Should friends desire, contributions may be sent to the American Friends Service Committee ( or Hospice of Santa Barbara (


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