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Wedding music: With these songs, I thee wed

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The moment of unplanned silence prompted by a midceremony miscue between groom and DJ still stings. Music, after all, was to occupy a key spot in our recent wedding, playing a role otherwise reserved for scripture, prayer, meditation or hymn in a more traditional religious ceremony.

In place of the usual wedding march, my nephew Leo, 11, and his guitar teacher had earlier serenaded the gathering with an expert — objectively speaking, of course — version of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" as my soon-to-be wife, Jenny, and her father walked down the aisle. In silence, we'd moved through introductions with our officiant, Neda, while a half-circle of 60 seated family members and friends looked on. Cue music. Cue music!

As we stood beneath a grand oak tree in rural Missouri, a short distance from a rehabbed barn where our reception was to be held, we waited while dead air, prompted by an unmanned CD player, delayed the proceedings.

I shifted nervously, fearing the worst. A ceremony without its centerpiece was no ceremony at all.

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Weddings and music: It's a topic that thousands of couples will ponder this summer. Their decisions will affect many more, whether they're enduring a mediocre cover band in a Holiday Inn conference room or sitting peacefully atop a Malibu bluff with a string quartet or a solo pianist. How music is presented can be the difference between a joyous celebration or a funereal exercise in cliche.

For me, the endeavor took on a greater weight due to my work. I love thousands of love songs, and I think daily about music and lyrical expression. Jenny and I had traded thoughts for months on our first dance, contemplated processional and recessional music, tangled over every nuance of sonic presentation, going so far as to include mention of stereo and music-sharing in our vows. Which pieces most accurately captured our feeling of love? Live band or DJ? If a DJ, how much freedom would he have, and what if the result was terrible music?

Most important for the panic at hand: What would happen if, standing before the altar with your bride, silence arrives when there should be music?

Then, as if drifting in with the wind, the echoed guitar melody arrived as the DJ stretched and hit play: "The Book of Love" by the Magnetic Fields, a song that imagines a bound volume compiling the many mysteries and meanings of love. It accurately, if wryly, describes some of the feelings we share.

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"The book of love is long and boring, no one can lift the damn thing up," Stephin Merritt sings to open the song. "It's full of charts and facts and figures, and instructions for dancing." Disregarding that some might misconstrue the words "long and boring" in relation to marriage, the line blossoms with the arrival of the first chorus. "But I love it when you read to me," sings Merritt, in his deep, droll voice. "You can read me anything."

Said book is also filled with many musical works, notes the singer, a truth quite evident when the groom is a pop music critic and the bride has controlled the jukebox in previous relationships. Our first date involved seeing composer-producer Jon Brion at his monthly Largo residency. We first experienced music together while leaning into each other with an ease that suggested we both could already sing on key a melody we'd heard only once.

On another early date we saw the Magnetic Fields perform at the Orpheum. Jenny had confessed her love of hair metal by then, and I'd forgiven her after she tempered it with passion for Joni Mitchell and LCD Soundsystem. She heard "The Book of Love" for the first time with me.

"The book of love has music in it," continues Merritt in the second verse, "In fact, that's where music comes from. Some of it is just transcendental. Some of it is just really dumb."

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A year and a half later, we got hitched, and in the process learned that few events in one's life require as much curatorial thought, judgment, negotiation, potential for embarrassment and opportunity for grand expression as a wedding. Music about love and devotion can be eye-rollingly cheesy, sappy, predictable — as anyone who's ever sat through a wedding between two nonmusical people can attest. "My Heart Will Go On" or "Wonderful Tonight," anyone?

But for those of us with music in the heart, the feeling that arrives upon experiencing a great new song strongly resembles the crush of first love. Endorphins fire, the pulse races, loins and brain tingle as a new spirit rushes into the consciousness, one seemingly personalized for pleasure.

We personalized the entire structure of the evening around music. After "Here Comes the Sun" and "The Book of Love," Neda presented us while the Crystals' 1963 gem "Then He Kissed Me" played. We had discussed both Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door" and the Kinks' "This Is Where I Belong" for the spot, but the girl-group classic won out.

Our first dance was to Sade's conversation with the moon, "The Sweetest Gift." Jenny shared Tom Petty's "Wildflowers" with her father, and I opted for Etta James' rendition of "At Last" for my dance with Mom, who'd been waiting a long time for this day.

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Jenny was generous enough to allow me to oversee the choice of the reception music and the creation of a mix CD of great love songs, one that included on its cover guests' seating assignments. The CD featured music from the ceremony, as well as work by, among others, Tom Waits ("Johnsburg, Illinois"), Rhye, Van Morrison ("Sweet Thing"), the Modern Lovers ("Someone I Care About"), Arvo Pärt ("Fratres"), Daft Punk ("Instant Crush") and Nina Simone (her version of "Here Comes the Sun").

Our DJ was longtime friend and former boss Tom "Papa" Ray, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis. Ray, known throughout the area as "the Soul Selector" for his killer show on local station KDHX-FM, spun classic soul, reggae, jazz and rhythm and blues throughout dinner, drinks and dessert.

The evening didn't devolve into a raging dance party, which disappointed my wife, who later expressed regret at not hearing more songs she recognized. For me, it was a huge blessing to have someone with unimpeachable taste do the turntable work.

Being musical tyrants, we could have compiled a huge list of songs and hit play on an iPhone, but that wouldn't have felt as personal as hearing the DJ play Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster's "In a Mellow Tone," Julie London's take on "I'm in the Mood for Love" and Sade's "No Ordinary Love," all of which scored our dinner. That and toasts, the clanging of dishes and laughter.

Yes, the unintentional silence before "The Book of Love" still stings, but only to me. The song played after that painful pause while Jenny and I lighted a unity candle and our guests looked on. Merritt's voice continued, describing the imaginary tome as being "full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes, and things we're all too young to know.

"But I love it when you give me things," concluded the singer. "And you ought to give me wedding rings."

After the ceremony, my new mother-in-law, Linda, noted something that we'd missed during the pre-song hiccup. That in the moment when we heard panicked silence, others heard something else: A songbird on a low hanging branch had volunteered a melodic solo.

I wish we could have told her we'd planned it.

randall.roberts@latimes.com

Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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