John Harbison was probably the least nervous of the Pulitzer Prize nominees before the winners were announced: The Los Angeles-based composer didn’t even know he was a nominee.

“I had no idea anything of mine had been submitted,” he confessed in a telephone conversation that evening. “I was not even conscious of the possibility existing.”

According to the L.A. Philharmonic composer-in-residence, a decision had been made with his publishers to pass on the 1986 competition.

Or so he thought. When he got the news Thursday that he had won the Pulitzer in music, Harbison called up Susan Feder, director of promotions at Associated Music. “I said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ She told me she didn’t care what I thought, she wanted to enter something of mine--and she never bothered to tell me.


“I guess you could look at the Zen of the situation: When you care the least about something, it’s most likely to happen.”

So winning was Surprise No. 1. The second was when Harbison learned which of his works had received the coveted award. “The Flight Into Egypt,” he pointed out, is not normally the stuff of Pulitzers.

“Usually a big piece wins it,” he said. “Mine is only 15 minutes long, and for chamber-size forces. Right now, I’m working on the Symphony No. 2. That’s the sort of piece they (the judges) go for.”

More than the scope of the composition, Harbison said, its nature is what made the judges’ choice particularly unusual: “Flight Into Egypt” is a sacred work.

“I write for churches quite a bit, and that’s something not central to composers today. The piece is not part of the mainstream, so I’m very happy to have it recognized. It’s part of a stream that’s continuous in my writing. I’ve always been drawn to it (sacred music).”

The work, based on the Book of Matthew, came as a result of a commission from the Boston-based Cantata Singers, who gave the premiere last November. Harbison once served as music director of the group.

No performances have taken place since, and none is scheduled at present. Despite the sudden notoriety of “Flight,” this situation may not soon change.

“Actually, I only got the tape of the premiere last month,” Harbison said with a chuckle. “My publishers don’t even have it in print yet. So, who knows when it will be performed?”

Even the Philharmonic has no immediate plans. Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the orchestra, noted that another Harbison work, “Diotima,” is already scheduled for next season. Not to worry, Fleischmann added: “His music, particularly in the last four or five years, seems to have made a more widespread impact. It’s being played more and more. His receiving the Pulitzer is long overdue, I would say.”

The 48-year-old composer is not so sure. “I hope people know about the arbitrariness of these prizes. I don’t know which other pieces were nominated, but I’ll bet I looked over some of them when I put together our new-music concerts. Every year, there are plenty of good pieces submitted. But only one can win.”

How much real value is there to a Pulitzer in music, particularly to an artist as widely recognized as Harbison? Besides the instant gratification of what he calls “the obituary tag” of “Pulitzer winner,” the composer pointed out “the practical effect that when I apply for a job at a university in the future, I’ll have more leverage.”

At this stage of his career, such a consideration carries greater weight for Harbison than the $1,000 sum that comes with the prize. “I think of what my teacher, Roger Sessions, said when he won it at the ripe old age of 85. ‘How much do I get?’ he asked. ‘Will it be enough to buy me dinner?’ ”