The entire text for the piece is Genesis 28:12:
Va heenay, sulahm
Va rosho mahgeeah
Va heenay, malachay
Elokim ohlim v’yordim bo
And he dreamed,
And behold, a
ladder set up
on the Earth
and its top reached
and behold, messengers
of G-d ascending and
descending on it.
At first thought, a musical equivalent to a ladder might well be a scale or mode. The messengers (the Hebrew word also means angels) ascending and descending then become notes on that scale or mode. Of course, one sometimes only goes up a few rungs to reach something and then descends, or perhaps climbs higher, pauses, and then descends pausing at each rung on the way down. Finally, it becomes clear that metaphorically any melodic musical movement on a scale or mode is included in this dream of ascending and descending a ladder between heaven and earth.
Jacob’s Ladder is in four sections as suggested by the division of the text above. At first these four sections are presented briefly and then each is expanded and developed. Probably as a result of thinking of the ‘notes as messengers’ I ended up with a little more than half the music purely instrumental. The voices return at length, however, in the final section, ascending and descending and, at the end, again, ascending.
The New York Times
“The 20-minute new piece burbles with a steady, propulsive rush … brightly etched … lilting vividness”
“Reich flashes—without lingering—on jeweled moments.”
“Energetic while meditative … light, graceful, refreshing. Twenty minutes passed like a song.”
New York Classical Review
“As new and sharply defined as Jacob’s Ladder was, it had perhaps the strongest early music feel of anything from Reich.”
“Lovely and refreshing, and the performance struck the first-time hearer as superb.”
“Jacob’s Ladder began with a quick string pulse that persisted, with voices, vibraphone and piano hung elegantly from the count … building in an almost Baroque manner over its 20 minutes.”