Elvis Costello talks at New England Conservatory

From left: New England Conservatory President Tony Woodcock, Elvis Costello, and Hankus Netsky.
From left: New England Conservatory President Tony Woodcock, Elvis Costello, and Hankus Netsky.Andrew Hurlbut

Who better to teach aspiring songwriters the subtleties of the craft than Elvis Costello? The folks at New England Conservatory made an inspired choice when they asked the artist formerly known as Declan MacManus to lead a workshop Friday with students enrolled in NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation program. During a discussion of song dynamics, NEC professor Hankus Netsky began to talk about The Doors’ song “Light My Fire.” “Imagine,” he said, “if ‘Light My Fire’ didn’t have. . . ” But Costello cut him off, saying curtly, “I try never to imagine ‘Light My Fire.’ ” And after a student performed an original composition, Costello asked her what had inspired the lyrics. “A depressed, alcoholic former boyfriend,” she replied. Costello acknowledged that such relationships are the source of many great songs. “We shorten the misery to fit it into songs,” he said. “We have symphonies to take care of the long miseries.” Later in the day, Costello spoke about his long and illustrious career — from his 1977 debut, “My Aim Is True,” to his new CD with The Roots, “Wise Up Ghost” — during a talk at Jordan Hall. Though he’s become something of a latter-day Burt Bacharach , it’s clear Costello hasn’t lost the rock ’n’ roll impulse, at one point telling the crowd, “You don’t need written music to make rock records. You need hand signals and threats.” Afterward, the 59-year-old songwriter was awarded an honorary doctor of music degree from NEC — the fourth member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to receive an honorary degree from the school. (Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, and Quincy Jones are the others.)

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